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The Art of Reimagining Self-Care

Carrie La Jeunesse, DVM, CT, CFE, LaJeune Consulting, Fairfax, Virginia

July 2015 |Peer Reviewed

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The Art of Reimagining Self-Care

As I fly from Washington, DC, to California, the pull of Capitol Hill’s congressional frenzy falls away. I am fatigued and invigorated by my work in global health and international development, particularly as it relates to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic policy and practices, which is a new level of responsibility and gratification. The change in my professional and personal life has been good, but change brings varying degrees of stress.1  

Getting in Touch with Myself

I breathe deeply, close my eyes, sigh lazily, and feel the sweet tug and memories of the Golden State—my home. California is one place I go to reconnect with some of my best support systems.

The deep breathing calms me. A quieter space expands. I think about how quickly the months in Washington have passed, how much has been accomplished, how much more there is to do, how much support and collaboration I have enjoyed, how much disappointment there has been, how much unexpected progress has been made. No wonder I am so tired! I feel a soft, kind place where I can start coming back to myself.

Related Article: Secrets to Self-Awareness

Transition Ritual

This conscious in-flight “transition ritual” supports the self-reflection and self-awareness I need to rejuvenate. My own moral imperative to “do good in the world” requires that I care for myself first, but for many people “self-care first” is not a conscious habit. This is perhaps especially the case for professional caregivers. Our “lizard brains” understand this by causing us to react instinctively if we are in immediate danger; however, but equally important, inklings, gut feelings, and intuitions that alert us to less intense dangers are often drowned out by daily life and work. Vital information about what is good, and what is not, can easily be lost if we do not take the time to listen.  

Haven’t we all wished we had listened to our intuition at times? Self-awareness can reconnect us to the mysterious interior wisdom that provides guidance in healthy ways.

Personalized Medicine & Healthcare2

Physiology and psychosocial constructs are essentially universal, but each person’s experience is unique. Just as professionals work to make clinical medicine and biomedical research uniquely relevant to each patient, we can reimagine our own self-care with those same principles.

Cultivating self-awareness can be viewed as the cornerstone of “personalized medicine,” a critical element for addressing compassion fatigue and burnout. Just as clinical work is directed by history-taking and physical examinations, self-awareness is a systems-status check that can inform about our physical, psychosocial, and emotional health.

Adages such as “physician, heal thyself” and “place your own oxygen mask first,” which may seem trite, hold deep wisdom. To be effective, ethical caregivers, we have to care for ourselves first. Period. An ethical mandate may be needed first as an incentive. Hopefully, a transition then occurs and self-care becomes the primary default that leads to greater personal and professional satisfaction.

Related Article: Are You at Risk for Compassion Fatigue?

Self-Awareness & Reconnection

In his literature review and editorial3 related to physician burnout and compassion fatigue, Tait D. Shanafelt points to self-awareness methods that help us “remember what we value”  and “connect us with what is most meaningful” in our work4 (see The Daily Review). These connections are adaptive and helpful; at times they can also feel intense and troubling. We cannot neatly separate our experiences into “personal” and “professional” life categories—nor, perhaps, should we. Awareness lessens the anxiety of trying to categorize our experiences and allows us to accept them just as they are.

Being aware of specific feelings helps to avoid labeling them as “good” or “bad.” We may try to avoid any feelings of self-doubt, fatigue, frustration, overwhelming emotions, or physical weariness, but instead of viewing these biopsychosocial discomforts as signs of personal frailty or deficiency, we can welcome them as messengers bringing honest insights to help us care for ourselves. Likewise, sensing and taking note of the joys, satisfaction, and fun we get from our professional and personal lives helps us recognize what is “life-giving.”

The Daily Review

One simple method for gaining self-awareness that can be worked into any busy schedule is taking notice. This can be done in about 5 minutes either alone or with someone trusted.

  • Find a place that is quiet and distraction-free
  • Identify what did not go well or what fell short of expectations (eg, communications that could have been better, disappointments)
    • Experience the memory physically and emotionally
  • Identify what went well (eg, a project completed, a new introduction, a good diagnosis, new knowledge, a beautiful sunrise, a hug from a loved one)
    • Experience the memory physically and emotionally
  • Record the experiences (eg, write them down, draw a picture, make a collage).

The daily ritual of noticing will become a habit that fosters informative self-awareness. Over time, it will reveal behavior patterns and attitudes about experiences.

Begin with a Pause

If veterinary professionals do not know what serves or harms them and what feeds their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls, they cannot hope to find what they need for their own well-being.

Often, the best way to start with self-care is to pause. This can be challenging because “calming” habitual physical and mental activity and observing our self-talk can be difficult and uncomfortable. But, it can also help us become familiar with the boundaries of satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and the in-between feelings of pure, nonjudgmental observation.

If we do not know what serves or harms us and what feeds our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls, we cannot hope to find what we need for our own well-being. Sometimes, we need to start by simply stopping and figuring out “where we are at.”

Editor’s note: Carrie La Jeunesse, DVM, graduated from the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis. She is also certified in thanatology and compassion fatigue education and specializes in caregiver stress and wellness. As an educator, consultant, writer, and speaker, she works domestically and internationally on policy and programs related to crisis preparedness and response, psychoemotional trauma, ethics, One Health, conservation, animal welfare, and international development.


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