Disclaimer: I am by no means a mental health professional. I am just a person who has spent a lot of time in feminist and LGBT activism groups where self-care, community care and emotional labour were always a topic. This reportage aims to introduce the topic of self-care and provide you with some tools that come from my personal experience and inspiring people I have in my constellation. If you find yourself in an overwhelming situation or you feel you need further help, please make sure you get the help you need. Mental health is as important as physical health and there is no shame in seeking therapy or taking medication. End the stigma.
Volunteering abroad can be the time of your life. You get to experience a new culture, dive into the unknown and try yourself out on different settings and tasks. You have the opportunity to meet interesting people and explore your very own goals and skills. All that being said, a year as volunteer is not a bed of roses. Volunteering work is still work, meaning that you take over responsibilities and devote your time to different tasks. Assuming that you are doing your voluntary work in a field you hold close to your heart, you will still face challenges and encounter difficult situations.
Coming from an LGBT activist background and having devoted a lot of time to volunteering since I was fifteen, I am pretty familiar with the doing too much style and with getting involved in projects that take up too much energy. This is not bad per se, but it can turn to be a dangerous way of managing time. We are constantly asked to do more and it is easy to lose sight of our health and our very own needs in this process of self-improvement. Our society´s narrative revolves around competitiveness and individualism in the context of an ideological and economic crisis, which is, to the very less, quite an unsettling scenario for our mental health.
A year of volunteering can thus be the perfect moment to upgrade your self-care game. Self-care is not self-indulgence and it has little to do with the instrumentalization of mental health by big companies to sell products like bath bombs, scented candles or holiday packages. Taking care of ourselves can be a radical practice in a world that places productivity over compassion and wellbeing. It means building resilience, exploring our needs and creating the time and space to recharge our batteries. Self-care means many different things and it is at the end of the day about understanding your needs and discover what works best for you.
Your emotions are valid
Emotions are not good or bad, they just are and they do exist for good evolutionary reasons. A year of volunteering can be instantly associated with feelings like happiness or joy, but life does not only consist on the bright side of things. Setting “happiness” as a permanent goal can result on frustration and ironically take us away from this path towards joy.
Your voluntary program is probably everything but quiet and boring. Meeting new people, adapting to a new living environment, dealing with a new language and taking on new tasks can make uncomfortable emotions arise. Learning to name and accept these emotions is a very important step in a self-care journey. It is ok to feel upset, sad, unsure, scared, overwhelmed. It is ok to feel whatever you are feeling right now.
Keep a feelings journal to track your emotions.
-Express your feelings through art: write poetry, paint, record a video, dance like there is no tomorrow. Art can help you confront your emotions and make friends with the ones you do not like that much.
-Allow yourself to make mistakes and to feel lost sometimes.
-Change the way you talk to yourself. Use words of appreciation and nurturance when thinking about your learning and your path. The way you talk to yourself and others shapes the way you see the world.
Mens sana in corpore sano
Self-care is not only about feeling happy or dealing with stress, but also about physical health. Our thoughts, emotions and body are closely connected and self-care works better in a holistic approach.
-Make sure that your basic needs are met. That you eat enough and healthy, that you sleep a minimum of seven hours and that you move your body.
-Whenever you feel like there is too much going on, being outdoors and walking can help making you feel more relaxed.
-There is a sport for everyone. Even if you were not a big fan of Physical Education at school, consider trying something new or revisiting an old passion. Walking and gently stretching do count as sport, in case someone has told you otherwise.
-Learn to breath. Breathing is often an unconscious act, but you can learn to be aware of your breathing and practice different techniques to calm your body, thus calming your mind.
Volunteering means doing something for others and it is possible that you work with people who are not that privileged or who are in a difficult position. Although it is good to be passionate about your work and devote a lot of energy to your tasks, it is also true that working with vulnerable populations can be emotionally draining. Two years ago I was in Madrid doing an internship in an organization that dealt with HIV and stigma, finishing my degree, working part time, volunteering and getting more and more entangled in LGBT activism, which basically meant being an advocate for other people´s situation and providing trans youth with help. It was fulfilling, it was rewarding and it was unspeakably challenging. I was so focused on meeting other people´s needs that I kind of forgot about my own, which led to an unavoidable burn-out.
It is ok to unplug. It is ok to avoid the newspaper, your Facebook feed and events about a sensitive topic for a while. If you are really invested on a social or environmental issue, it can be difficult to let go, as you may feel that everything is so urgent and needs to be done now. But even superheroes need a break!
-Surround yourself with supporting people and make sure there is someone you can talk to about your worries and hopes.
-Create a self-care toolkit for your not-so-good-days. It can be helpful to have an actual box filled with a book you like, some sweets or your favourite tea, a list of films you want to watch, letters from your friends, etc. Be creative, the sky is the limit.
-Reward yourself. Aknowledge your successes, no matter how small you think them to be.
-Be vocal about your needs and learn to say no. At first it will seem scary and weird, but it will be worth it in the long run.
-Get out of your comfort zone, break one habit and try something completely new. That is how I found my love for knitting!
-Go on a social media cleanse or start a social media detox.
-If possible, spend some time with a non-human friend. Cats and dogs are wonderful companions.
-Enjoy a hug. You can hug yourself too.
Some links that you may want to check
Self-care from a queer perspective by author and activist Sam Dylan Finch
45 self-care ideas for a healthy mind, body and soul
Self-care ideas, this time in German!