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Mindfulness and Self-care

May 21st, 2014 by Suzanne McAllister, PhD

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“We must go slowly, there is not much time” -Anonymous

This quote reminds one of Mark Twain’s comment at the end of a long letter, ’If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter’. We must try to remember this when we’re rushing around, thinking of the next thing on our to-do lists, while engaged in some other activity – in other words – not being present; not being mindful.

IDA_Suzanne-with-goatMindfulness has many definitions. A simple one is, ‘Mindfulness is a way to fully experience each moment as it happens’ (Penn Program for Stress Management, University of Pennsylvania). A medical definition of burnout is, ‘exhaustion of physical or emotional strength usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration’ and those working in advocacy for animals are ripe for these conditions of prolonged stress and frustration.

A key to preventing or treating burnout is self-care through mindfulness. If we are able to recognize the signs of stress and frustration, we have a chance of addressing them before they take over. It may seem obvious that we would recognize signs of stress and frustration, but that is often not the case. We live in a culture that prizes hard work and individual contribution. These are often seen as badges of honor – long work hours, few hours of sleep, and multi-tasking. Even Wall Street investment banks are recognizing that extended work hours have detrimental impacts on their employees.

Stress and burnout associated with those involved in animal advocacy is also caused by exposure to the trauma endured by animals on factory farms, in laboratories, and in the display and entertainment industries. The problem is so enormous, and the complacency or lack of awareness of the majority of the world’s population can be disheartening. This can result in a feeling of urgency – there is so much to be done, and so few of us to do it. There can also be a feeling of isolation – ‘I’m in the minority’; ‘My values and position are irrelevant to most, perhaps even threatening to some as we challenge the status quo’. Having a sense of urgency, feeling the weight of an enormous task, and feeling isolated or invisible are key ingredients of creating stress and burnout.

How can mindfulness help to counteract these conditions and establish self-care? Mindfulness teaches us to be aware in the moment. Instead of reacting – we slow down – pause – consider – then respond. We listen to our bodies – are we tense or relaxed? If tense, ‘what can I do to relax’ – for the moment, or perhaps for an extended period. A longer period of mindfulness – perhaps establishing a 10 to 20 minute session of quiet sitting in the morning before setting out for the day – creates the possibility of recognizing an area of frustration, hurt, confusion that is below the surface. Bringing it to awareness gives us the chance to decide if there is something that can, or should, be done to address the situation. We learn to keep our side of the street clean (so-to-speak). We don’t allow debris to pile up. We recognize the burden before we feel buried. We face each day with a fresh and clear mind. We notice anxiety when it arises and determine if there is a way to handle the anxiety with self-compassion (perhaps make contact with a supportive friend or colleague); or with a silent meditation.

We develop habits or practices that can help us to recognize and counteract stressful conditions. Here are a few suggestions:

• Set a reminder on your phone for the same time each day that causes you to pause and recite a few meaningful words, or just pause (a practice started by Dr. Will Tuttle and Judy Carman – noon, all over the world ‘Compassion encircles the earth for all beings’)

• Join, or create, a like-minded group that meets regularly and supports each other’s activities (vegan Meetups, meditation groups, vegan spirituality groups)

• Locate books, or websites, with words of wisdom and/or comfort that help shift your perspective when you need it

• Take time off to recharge your batteries: a walk in nature; a meditation retreat; a dance class; playing music; making art

Suzanne McAllister, PhD is a psychologist with a private practice near Philadelphia. Suzanne has been practicing mindfulness meditation for over 10 years and uses mindfulness in her work with clients. She is developing a model for bringing mindfulness to organizations. She is the former program development consultant for Animals and Society Institute (2010-2012), and was an organization development consultant for many years. She is a co-leader of the Vegan Spirituality Group of Philadelphia.

This blog post is Part 2 in a series entitled, Sustainable Activism.

Please read Part 1, “Compassionate Objectivity” here.

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