Breathe: Self-Care in the Helping Professions

By Sharon Fleshman

Many students are juggling coursework, extracurricular activities, a social life, an on-campus job, and perhaps a job or internship search.  However, students preparing for careers in the helping professions really have their work cut out for them.  The typical nursing student also has day-long clinical rotations.  On any given day, an education student may be rushing from his student teaching site to class.  Social work students are heading to field placements three days a week.   If you see yourself in any of these scenarios, self-care is vital to your success during your time at Penn and beyond.

When the issue of self-care comes up, I’m reminded of the common illustration of oxygen masks in the safety presentation given on an airplane.  The flight attendant points out that if the air pressure in the cabin drops suddenly, the masks will drop down.  Passengers are further instructed that “if you are with a child or someone else who needs your assistance, secure your mask first.”   However, there is a potential flaw with applying this analogy to self-care.  You shouldn’t wait until you are in a semi-crisis mode, like experiencing a drop in cabin pressure, to think about self-care.  You need to be intentional and plan ahead so that caring for yourself is part of your day-to-day life.

Begin with the basics.  Eat healthy food.  Get sufficient exercise and sleep.  Make sure you get regular physical checkups.  These steps are obviously important, but often so easy to neglect.

Debrief with others and with yourself.  Process your experiences from a given day on your field placement site by speaking with a mentor or peer and journaling your reflections. Such debriefing can allow for shared insight and the closure to put the events of the day behind you, especially if they were stressful.

Turn down the volume.  Most helping professions require a lot of talking with and listening to other people.  For you, winding down might mean establishing a space where there is less chatter.  I’ve heard some students speak of prayer, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing as ways to do this.

Enjoy creativity in its many forms.  Whether you are on the giving end or the receiving end, creativity can have an energizing impact.  Listen to music that inspires you.  Learn how to knit, crochet or quilt.  Take up pottery, woodwork or photography.  Check out an art exhibit at a local museum.

Maintain a solid support system.  It is ironic that those in helping professions can be reluctant to get assistance for themselves.  Don’t hesitate to get additional help from other helping professionals, such as counselors, as necessary.  Keep in touch with family, friends, mentors, advisors and others who have your best interest at heart.



Author: Sharon

Sharon Fleshman is the Senior Associate Director of Career Services for students in Education, Nursing and Social Policy & Practice.