Self-care in Higher Ed

Throughout my life, I have been blessed and cursed with the “I want to learn everything and do everything I can” attitude.  Maybe it’s the counselor in me.  Maybe it’s the adult child in me.  Maybe it’s the perfectionist, control freak in me. Or just maybe, it’s the higher education professional in me that wants to develop and hone my skills so I may assist and strengthen the skills of my students in and outside the classroom.  Wherever it is derived, it is there and it is not escaping me anytime soon.  Why discuss this?  Because it becomes an issue in my daily routine.  I get overwhelmed, jet-lagged at work, feel failure, and resort to negative self-talk.

As a counselor, if there was one thing I learned from the profession, it is that self-care is ultimately one of the most important aspects.  Without it, you burn out and do not operate at your maximum capacity to help clients.  In parallel, as I taught clients stress management techniques, I taught myself.  As I learned how to visualize, do deep breathing, say yes to that massage (and not feel guilty), I realized that it was not a treat of selfishness, it was a part of the job.  While I was not being paid for self-care, I was managing my time to enhance my service at work.

When I transitioned back into the higher education world, I thought, why can’t the counselor self-care concept be transferred here?  Of course, many of the skills I taught and used: deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, even strategies from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group were applicable.  In fact, I have used several of these activities in my first-year seminar class.  Many of my students call these techniques a part of Ms. Manning’s mental health days.  What am I really teaching?  I am hopefully developing skills that they will turn to when they feel like their progress is depleted or when they begin to feel the effects of stress on their body.  Isn’t that part of your workload as a student or professional? If I am teaching these techniques, then I ought to use them as well.

I feel confident in managing my stress level now and honestly, I don’t get stressed.  There, I said it, I DON’T GET STRESSED.  At least, I don’t let the stress impact my body the way I once did.  If you are a new professional, take it upon yourself to incorporate self-care into your life.  Your body will thank you, you will add extra years onto your life, and you will look more approachable to colleagues and students.  What are my favorite techniques for self-care?  Here are just a few:

1. Deep breathing once a day. It seriously only takes a couple of minutes.  I do it on the drive to work for 3 minutes, while I am waiting for an appointment, at my desk, or before bedtime.

2. Focus on the task I am doing. I try to work on one item at a time.  This is especially difficult, but instead of having several documents open, I work on one or give myself a time limit on that project.  When I am doing laundry, I focus on laundry, when I walk the dogs I focus on that. You get the idea.

3. Exercise: Yoga and meditation. My life changed the moment I walked into a yoga studio.  My practice helps me to stretch and move after a long work day.  The meditation helps to let go of negative energy and learn to focus on me.  Any exercise can work, find something.

4. Rewards. If I work long and hard on something (specifically, that pesky dissertation), I reward myself.  I eat an ice cream cone, I buy an outfit I like, I get a massage, or I spend a night on the couch doing NOTHING!

5. Say no. I know my limits and even though I feel like I am disappointing someone or something, I have to set boundaries and guidelines for what I am capable of doing.  Keeping priority and task lists helps.  My body tells me when it is too much (I have a high threshold) and then, I back off.

6. Counseling. I said it. Counseling is a wonderful proactive tool to combat stress.  There is still a misconception of counseling, that something is wrong and that’s why you attend sessions.  To the contrary, I use counseling as a stress management tool.  When I go in for a session, it does not mean something is wrong or I have a problem, it simply means I am processing my life, my work, and situations around me to better understand my purpose.  I find it unbelievably helpful!

7. Set Limits. I do not give my students my cell phone, add them to facebook, or other social media sites while I am teaching or working with them.  This is a personal decision and I may give them my information after a class is over, but I am not a fan of texting at 2am regarding an assignment.

8. Take a staycation or vacation. Taking time for yourself is important.  My partner and I make a point to take at least one vacation a year.  We focus on ourselves and our relationship.  We shut off phones, emails, and sometimes social media.  The relaxation time revives me and keeps me fueled to take on more when I get back.

If you are interested in learning more about deep breathing or guided imagery, I would be happy to share resources with you.  Email to request them.


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