International aid and development workers work in some of the most challenging contexts globally. They often work long hours in high stress environments far from family and with limited access to health and wellness services.  Working in post-conflict, crisis and development contexts for the last 11 years, I’ve had to develop a self-care regimen to stay grounded and be able to work and live from a place of physical, mental and emotional intelligence.

Visiting my hometown in Northern California, often required 24 hours or longer traveling on planes to make it home for a visit. Being cramped on planes I was always keen to research and discover new self-care practices that were mobile, and that I could do anywhere.

Self-care anywhere

Because their work entails working closely with communities affected by conflict and disaster, aid workers can often experience vicarious trauma, sometimes called secondary trauma which comes from listening to the stories of other affected by trauma, as well as burnout and empathy fatigue.  Many also work in contexts where they also experience primary shock trauma, such as those working in Haiti during the Earthquake, Aceh, Indonesia during the Tsunami, or in countless of conflict environments where aid workers are directly targeted.

Exposure to these high stress environments often leaves aid workers continually up-regulated, living within in sympathetic dominance of their nervous system. Such high stress environments are not just found overseas, but are often a way of life for many working in corporate environments, law firms, and medical and law enforcement professions, such as ER doctors and nurses, EMTs, firefighters and police, as well as those working in caregiving professions, such as shelter staff, social workers, inter-city school teachers, etc.

We know up-regulation can have an immense impact on someone’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, often leading to burnout or empathy fatigue, but research has also linked it to high levels of inflammation in the body, which can in turn create other physical health problems. We also know that our physical and emotional experiences reside in the body, and in our fascia. This is where having your own personal self-care toolbox of practices and strategies for self-regulation, including stimulation of the vagus nerve (the 10th cranial nerve, main implementer of the parasympathetic nervous system), is extremely beneficial.

Creating a self-care regimen that cultivates interoception, awareness of one’s inner landscape, choice-making based on interoception, mindfulness, gratitude and empathy has been an important part of my self-care regimen to keep me grounded. Check back next week for part two where we explore specific practices and their effect on self-regulation as well as part three on how I have brought these practices to fellow aid workers!

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