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  • Writer's pictureDafiny Alves

Self-care in the Counselling profession and What we can Learn with Generation Z

Updated: 2 days ago




When I started my training in counselling in 2017 all we talked about was the importance of self-care for counsellors and psychotherapists; all the training and supervision I’ve been on have included people’s shares of what they do for self-care a variety of: play with my cats, walks, visiting family and friends, expending time with family, some would go further and say things like: meditation, yoga, reading and hobbies.

 

Through the following years, I also engaged in all sorts of activities to improve my wellbeing and my self-care and the more I have done, the more I questioned myself - how do I know if my self-caring is working? What is really self-care in this day and time?

 

The Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition describes self-care as “the act of engaging in activities or behaviours that help one achieve or maintain good physical or mental health, especially to mitigate the effects of stress or trauma:” (1)

 

As a counsellor I was adamant that I would live by example, I started to engage in activities and behaviours that would maintain good physical and mental health. I took good care of my sleep and eating because this is part of my self-care, regular breaks, supervision, and personal therapy when I needed it. Like most people on the planet, I was following this recipe of all the things I could do to mitigate my level of stress, because of course I know that high levels of stress can lead to burnout and mental health issues, I am a counsellor, and this is our gig, right?! I made sure that I was using the 5 ways to wellbeing (2): connect, exercising, learning, taking notice and giving as the current research claims that people who implement the 5 ways have higher levels of resilience and are happier, which I agree and saw working in my life. But what I also noticed was that following the self-care recipe is the same as trying to chop onions with a spoon in your kitchen; you are in the right place using almost the right tool for the task but you won’t get any results, actually, you may get more stressed because, like any other tool, it needs to be used in the right moment for the right task.

 

 Much later, on my self-care journey I came across the work of Sue Hutton (3) a social worker and mindfulness instructor, specialising in mindfulness & neurodiversity and accessibility. She Has been developing neurodiversity-informed modifications for the MBSR curriculum with the CAMH Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre. This work has been done in collaborative effort with neurodiverse advisors and their caregivers. I attended the Online Neurodiversity informed Mindfulness training with Sue Hutton, in this training, I learnt that some breathing techniques could trigger people rather than help them stay in the present and or relax which is a very personal thing, and people do relax in different ways. Some people don’t even know what relaxation means to them, and we do not know who our clients are if they, are neurodiverse or trauma survivors unless they tell us. It is good to remember that not all mindfulness exercises will help or work for everyone, including ourselves. Practising mindfulness does indeed calm down the sympathetic nervous system (4) you just need to find what works for you.

 

Bringing a bit of context here, I am a person with dyscalculia. For me what I learnt by trying mindfulness is that every time I try square breathing or any breath work that requires counting, it freaks me out because I just cannot do it, many times in the past I pushed myself to do it because I believed it works for others and it should work for me as well but it only made me resent  Jon Kabat-Zinn's for bringing this knowledge to the western world and it obviously brought up feelings of inability and shame. After, several attempts and many out-of-the-box tries now I know that breathing in and out -the good old belly breathing -can ground and relax me every time I feel that stress is building up. That is because this breathing technique activates the relaxation response in our body when breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve (5). I just needed to find which Mindfulness technique works for me. Please note that it helps me at the moment, but I still need to do the work to understand what is going on and what I can do about it.

 

 

Reflecting on my process and my client work I started to notice what type of self-care tool I need for specific stressors and how I could help my clients to find the right tool for them. What I do is use compassion to check with myself if that particular tool works for me considering my background, life experience and all the intersecting factors that influence and are part of my identity and what I need right now. I also allowed myself to create things that work specifically for me. Because of the way my brain is wired, I had to learn how to tailor my self-care. I realised I can meditate better when I am running and listening to music, but why? Because my brain is so loud, it is easier to anchor my attention on my legs, and my breath while running and listening to music. In those moments I have what I call a holiday for my mind.

 

I had no idea what dyscalculia was until 2019; I was in group supervision when someone presented her client a young person who had a dyscalculia diagnosis and things started to make more sense to me. I always knew that something was wrong with me, but I did not know that it was because my brain was wired differently. Recently I started to wonder since dyscalculia is a pretty new thing for me even if I dealt with this my whole life, how many counsellors may be out there without knowing if they are neurodivergent?

 

Ellie Middleton wrote an article for Stylist (6) this month (2024) where she talks about her late diagnosis of ADHD and autism and how many famous women are coming out publicly to talk about their lives before and after their late diagnosis, she raised the question - “For how long the health system will continue to let down so many women?”  Women who struggled for years without really knowing what was going on with them and why they felt so different.

 

I heard many comments about the increase in diagnosis in neurodiversity, and some were along the lines – of “Is this booming in neurodiversity “a trend”?” Let’s be honest it is not like anyone wakes up as neurodivergent in the morning; my hypothesis here is that we owe this awakening of diversity and differences to Generation Z.  According to Stuart Heritage in his article for Men’s Health magazine (2023) (7) generation Z is not afraid to challenge the status quo, they are the children born from 1997 – 2012 and they make more than fifth of the UKs workforce. This generation is more preoccupied with their mental health and wellbeing than any other generation, they are not afraid to ask for work-life balance, and hybrid work - who knew?! That was my dream since I was a teenager, but it was not on the cards for previous generations like mine as a child raised in the eighties, I was raised to make work my priority and everything else, like being a human being with a life, was not a priority. 

 

Gen Z also exercises more, drinks less than previous generations and most of them are vegan as they are concerned about the environment and carbon footprint. They also believe in the good use of therapy and are the majority in my counselling rooms. This generation has been chasing the understanding and diagnosis of autism spectrum, ADHD and learning disabilities, they started conversations in gender fluidity, not only but also in mental health. The new generation opened doors that we may never have seen; and for the first time in my life, I am proud of being ridiculously awful with numbers, because it is just who I am, but it does not define me.

 

What I learnt with Generation Z is there’s more to life than just my job and self-care is what works for me, including all the parts that make me the person I am with my flaws my strengths my identity and what is important to me.

 

I love this quote about Internal Family Systems (IFS) that Bessel Van der Kolk (2014) used in his book The Body Keeps the Score; it sums up my self-care journey: “Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care. All systems – families, organizations, or nations – can operate effectively only if they have clearly defined and competent leadership. The internal family is no different: All facets of our selves need to be attended to…”

 

Now I know my self-care is working when:

·      My level of stress is reducing or is manageable. An example is when the foxes raid our food waste bin and the garden looks like a war zone and I am okay with that because we can pick up everything, as opposed to when I am stressed, and I start having thoughts about how much I resent my life and that damn fox!

·      I can also check if my self-care is working by checking my feelings: when my sense of belonging, fulfilment and contentment are increasing it means I am regulated.

 

 

 

 

 

References:

 

 

 

 1-Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition Copyright 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

 

 


4- The Body keeps the Score/ Bessel Van der Kolk 2014. Published by Penguin  Books, page 209

[visited 18/02/24]

 

8-The Body keeps the Score/ Bessel Van der Kolk 2014. Published by Penguin  Books, page 283

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