No Time for Self-Care? Simple Micro-Practices to the Rescue

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Editor’s note: Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW is a psychotherapist in private practice with over twenty years experience. She is the author of six self-help books, including Simple Self-Care for Therapists: Restorative Practices to Weave Through Your Workday. Ashley’s continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled “A New Approach to Self-Care: The Ethical Imperative of Daily Restoration” is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on June 12, 2015. This event is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members and is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.

Sitting with a group of colleagues, having just finished our monthly consultation group, I blurted out the question, “How do you feel about self-care?” At the time, I was researching and writing a book about self-care for therapists, so this question was very much on my mind.

I fielded a range of responses from, “I know it’s important but I don’t have the time,” to “I’m in this field to take care of others, not myself!” Over the next few months, as I polled my colleagues, I heard these themes of conflict and time constraints repeated many times.

I began to realize and assert with increasing vigor that it’s time to change our approach to self-care. Not only do we have to address the practical roadblocks to self-care but also the ethical quandary that allows self-sacrifice to undermine good therapy.

Ethically speaking, it’s important to understand that taking care of yourself is taking care of your clients (and your family and friends.) I have been a lifelong singer, and I remember when a voice teacher told me, “You are the instrument. You have to take care of your body or otherwise you won’t have a voice to share.”

Ashley Davis Bush
Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW

Being a therapist is not unlike being a singer—you are the instrument of healing. Whether you employ CBT, DBT, EMDR, or EFT, it’s the therapeutic relationship itself, as we well know, that is the tool for healing. It’s your presence and your personal resonance that create the relational environment for healing. If we don’t take care of ourselves in mind, body, and spirit, we can’t take care of others.

Consider how we are compromised when we are overworked and burned out, depleted and compassionately fatigued, numbed and vicariously traumatized. If we don’t replenish and restore ourselves, if we don’t take self-care seriously, we’re not doing our best clinical work.

If we don’t take care of ourselves in mind, body, and spirit, we can’t take care of others. So given that self-care is not only vital but an ethical imperative, how do we realistically fit it into our busy, overworked schedules? It’s not like we can drop everything and book a monthly vacation or even a weekly massage. How can we practically engage in self-care and give it the priority it deserves in our lives and in our careers?

One answer is to microtize self-care. What does this mean? It means to engage in small habits in our daily lives that have a big impact on our well-being. Advances in neuroplasticity underscore this successful strategy: Small repetitive practices matter, both in creating new neural networks in our brains and in creating sustainable self-care.

Practically, it can be as simple as ‘shrinking down’ the macro–self-care activities and practices that you already love into their most powerful essences. For example, you might not be able to get to a yoga class today, but you can benefit from the stretch and relaxation of one power-pose between sessions. You might not be able to schedule a full body massage today, but you can realize the benefits of myofascial release by massaging your feet with a tennis ball before you go home.

The idea is to create a personal toolbox of micro-habits—self-care activities that you can do in a few minutes or less which can then be woven through the workday. With this new approach, you can take care of yourself throughout the workday, before clients, between clients, and even in session.

Here are a few more ideas to get you started:

  • You love to read but don’t have time to dive into a novel: Keep a book of poetry nearby that you can flip through between sessions.
  • You love to take long walks in the woods but don’t have time for that right now: Do a march-in-place exercise and add 10 jumping jacks to get your blood flowing.
  • You want to do long meditations but never seem to have the time: Set your timer for a one-minute. A brief moment of mindfully focusing on your breath is a powerful form of relaxation.
  • You can’t wait to go on vacation, but don’t have anything scheduled for months: Spend a minute looking at photographs of places that you long to visit (look online or in a travel magazine).
  • You’ve gotten triggered in a session and want to go outside for fresh air: Reengage your dual awareness with a deep belly breath and then lengthen your spine by imagining a string pulling your head upward.

Less really is more. Once you get into the habit of using micro–self-care practices throughout the day, every day, you’ll notice that you start to feel replenished on a regular basis. The process begins first with the realization that self-care is your ethical obligation, and second with the intention of making self-care a daily priority. With this approach, you honor the importance of self-care in your professional life and you make it happen.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW, therapist in Epping, New Hampshire

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    June 1st, 2015 at 6:28 AM

    Great article! Our profession is full of “do as I say, not as I do.” I had to have a health crisis to start taking my own advice! (And it has paid off.)

    I also believe that when we counsel our clients from the solid ground of having our own self care practice that our words – which may be identical to the words used when we’re risking burn out – have far more credibility.

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 1st, 2015 at 5:35 PM

    Hi Catherine,
    Thanks for your kind comments. I hope your health crisis has resolved and that you continue to be committed to your self-care! Peace, Ashley

  • michael

    michael

    June 2nd, 2015 at 3:37 AM

    Breaking out the travel magazines tonight… dreaming of the perfect getaway!

  • Laura

    Laura

    June 2nd, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    I don’t think that I am in the minority when I say that taking care of myself actually makes me feel guilty. I used to do all of the fun things that I enjoyed so much, but now that I am married and have kids I feel bad when I do those little self care things, and like all of my attention should be on the home and the family. I rationally know that I need time for me too, but I think that I only think that it’s ok to do that after the kids are sound asleep. By then I am too tired to enjoy anything for myself other than just going to sleep too! I know that I am probably doing myself and my marriage a real disservice by being this way, but I swear even why I try not to feel guilty, I still do and I don’t really know how to not feel that way.

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 2nd, 2015 at 11:42 AM

    That’s terrific Michael! Thanks for sharing,
    Ashley

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 2nd, 2015 at 2:23 PM

    Hi Laura,
    Thanks for sharing about your dilemma. You definitely are not alone in your experience. I think we need an entire cultural paradigm shift to help people understand that taking care of yourself IS taking care of others. There is more to share when your cup is full. Also, a strong and happy self models for your kids that self-care is positive. And of course, a strong and happy marriage obviously benefits your children. I would say awareness is a good start. Keep on the journey. With intention, you can start to turn it around. My book “Simple Self-Care for Therapists” helps anyone start with the benefits of ‘guilt free’ micro-self-care. Good luck! Ashley

  • Stefanie

    Stefanie

    June 2nd, 2015 at 8:18 PM

    I love how you refer to it as micro self-care! Very interesting read! I spray lavender in my office between clients too! I feel it recharges and cleanses the energy!

  • Tim

    Tim

    June 4th, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    As all I seem to have time for these days are micro segments of me time these are some great suggestions!

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 4th, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    Yes, exactly. Thanks Stefanie for sharing your kind comments. Peace, Ashley

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 4th, 2015 at 1:18 PM

    Great Tim — hope the ideas are helpful. Micro-self-care is very effective! Peace, Ashley

  • Maggie W

    Maggie W

    June 5th, 2015 at 1:59 PM

    A breath of fresh air and a nice little walk does the trick for me every single time

  • Mike

    Mike

    June 5th, 2015 at 4:17 PM

    I have chronic illness and live off a disability income, so I have plenty of time for self-care, usually things like meditation. I hope to get well someday and work. I actually like the thought that I’m healthy enough that I don’t need a lot of self-care to keep going, but because of my experience up to this point I think I will be able to meditate effectively without needing a lot of time.

    My own therapist told me once that he works part-time specifically so he has time for self-care and so he can be fully present for his clients. That is a tremendous gift he is giving to me and his other clients.

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 8th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    Hi Maggie,
    That sounds perfect! Thanks for your comment. Peace,
    Ashley

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    Ashley Davis Bush

    June 8th, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    Hi Mike,
    Good luck with your journey towards good health. Meditation, even in short bursts, makes a huge difference. Thanks for sharing, Ashley

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