“It’s absolutely false economy not to invest in self-care.” So says Irene Champagne, a clinical counsellor and family therapist in northern British Columbia. Like many caregivers, Champagne feels called to respond to the needs of others. But helping those who are hurting can also drain our spiritual and emotional reserves. If we constantly put others ahead of ourselves, we could wind up in a spiritual deficit, stressed out and exhausted — that “false economy” Champagne refers to.
Stress is a natural response to danger. It elevates our heart rate, boosts blood pressure and activates our “fight or flight” instinct. While stress can be useful, chronic stress can lead to health problems, from headaches to heart disease. Twenty-seven percent of Canadian workers report experiencing high stress on a daily basis, and a quarter say they’ve left jobs because of unbearable work-related stress.
Self-care, on the other hand, means intentionally taking time to care for our mental, spiritual and physical health. It’s making sure we’re staying hydrated, getting outside regularly and keeping in touch with friends. Or doing whatever other activities help us decompress, rest and recharge. What does self-care look like for those who care for others? How do the counsellor, the teacher and the minister look out for themselves? We spoke with a few caregivers to find out.
Jackie McMillan of Kitchener, Ont., is an autism educator and founder of Thrive With Autism, an educational hub that provides teachers, parents and children with information and support around autism. McMillan, who herself has autism, also studies the effects of physical inflammation on the condition.
“Top of the list are nourishments and sleep. I do what I call ‘hyper-nourishment.’ I choose foods that are nutrient-dense, prepare them in ways that make those nutrients as available to my body as possible and try to be regular about my meals. Sleep! When you have autism, you’re very likely to have a disrupted sleep cycle. Given that reality, it can be really important to adopt good sleep hygiene, sleep routines and develop your capacity for meditation and trauma relief.”
Irene Champagne is a clinical counsellor and family therapist. She has partnered with the United Church as a mobile counsellor in northern British Columbia, working with communities and individuals affected by the residential school system.
“I have a daily mindfulness practice of three parts: a physical aspect, a deep meditation process and a prayer process. I do tai chi and yoga, run long-distance and kayak solo. I practise self-compassion, where I hold my own heart and comfort myself for things I might be hurting over. On a particularly bad day, I watch YouTube videos of baby sloths. There’s nothing like a vulnerable baby animal to put a smile on your face.”
Chris Gilmour is a professional outdoor educator, wilderness guide and emergency management planner in the Muskoka area of Ontario. He is the founder of the Changing World Project, which offers educational resources to help people prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“I’ve trained my mind to give very little attention to things that I cannot do anything about and to focus very intentionally on things I can change and do. Getting into nature and out of my head are huge for me. If I tune into my senses, feel the wind, smell it, listen to the birds sing, I become part of the story of what’s happening in the forest — it pulls me out of my stress and into a calm place. I mess up all the time, but I spend almost no time dwelling there. Be gentle on yourself when you fall and get back up. Keep taking those little steps and things will grow.”
Laura David Foster is an art therapist in Edmonton. Art therapy, which combines visual arts with psychotherapy, allows Foster’s clients to express thoughts and feelings that are often difficult to articulate, such as grief, anxiety and other psychological issues. “I teach a simple breathing exercise with imagery: smelling a flower as you breathe in and blowing out a candle as you breathe out. This helps you breathe in a more focused way. I like to create art and immerse myself in it with no particular idea of what the outcome should be. Practices such as prayer, contemplation and meditation can be integrated with art, [as] art lends itself well to spirituality.”
Rev. Karen Bridges is the minister of congregation and community development for Robertson-Wesley United in Edmonton. She co-founded the Spiritual Arts Collective at Robertson-Wesley, which combines spirituality with creative expression.
“I engage in a scripture reflection every Tuesday with anyone who wants to come to church. I find that refocuses me on my calling. It’s a way that I am able to engage consistently in a prayerful practice because I’m expected to be there. I find with self-care it’s helpful to be accountable to someone else. I also do kick-boxing. It allows me to release some of the anger, some of the frustration. When you’re sitting and listening to people, their emotions can be placed on you, and if you don’t release them I think you can become very disheartened. Physically kicking things has been very helpful for me.”
Kent MacLaren is a trade adviser in Toronto and a board member at Alderwood United. He and his wife have been her parents’ caregivers for over 10 years. “My daily practice is basically prayer and scripture. Scripture, for me, means two separate and distinct things. The study of the Word, namely Bible study, and the reading of the Word, meaning daily reading and meditation. I do that every single day. It keeps me grounded. It makes me realize I am not alone. The next weapon that God gave me to cope was prayer. Prayer is a conversation with the living God. Through prayer, I’ve developed a fellowship with God, a relationship. These are the things I have used to cope with the situation presented to us, and the church has helped immensely.”
Susan Cooper is the contemplative ministry lead and spiritual director at Hillhurst United in Calgary.
“We are built for and must develop our capacity to love. That’s the fundamental assumption of both the contemplative life and any contemplative practice. We’re not here to fix the world; we’re here to love it. One of the most powerful practices that I’ve ever learned is the practice of letting go. I use it during spiritual direction sessions, and I also use it after. I use it at the end of the day. For me, in a creative role, I also need to withdraw, to be a little bit of a hermit. I need solitude to regenerate, to renew. Some people really love reading the Bible, but lots of others just can’t crack that nut. I think that anything read meditatively carries some spirit. You read it slowly; you let it open you; you stay with it. And every time you do, it touches something deeper in you.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
This piece first appeared in the July/August issue under the headline “Self-care for caregivers.”