This is the first article in a series, “Self-Care Strategies for Expat Aid Workers.”
I write Expat Backup because I care about helping expat aid workers to live happy, healthy lives in the world’s most challenging environments.
We live in a world where recruiters and hiring managers scrutinize our backgrounds on LinkedIn and Facebook. It becomes important to maintain a professional image that inspires confidence — or, at least competence — in colleagues and casual friends. For us aid workers, the line between personal and professional often gets very blurry.
I’m just going to come right out and say it. Self-care is important because your physical, mental and emotional health are evaluated when you’re looking for international development jobs. Personal resilience is something that can be measured and, along with emotional intelligence, it is especially valuable in hardship posts and emergencies. You may not have realized this explicitly before, but your own personal health is a valuable asset to your work and the people around you.
To me, that’s self-care.
As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote in The Phenomenon of Man, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” That’s why I start self-care with my physical body.
Learning how to care for your physical body is a gentle act of self-discovery. Most of us are taught to stay in the mind and disassociate ourselves from our physical body. An example of disassociation is not feeling a particular sensation, like pain or pleasure, even though it is happening to you. Instead, you feel far away and distant, maybe even numb.
Disassociation is a natural response to trauma, but if you ever learned it (and I’m guessing you did), you need to unlearn it. Being in your body and feeling things is actually good and healthy for you.
Physical stress creates an endocrine response that triggers hormones that influence emotions. Creating physical stress for your body directly influences your mood and how you feel. Likewise, reducing physical stress makes you happy and more vital, more connected to your natural, healthy equilibrium.
There is so much to say about physical self-care, so many small choices that can bring greater pleasure to your life. For this series, I’ll focus only on the very simple basics that any aid worker can do. I mean that. Whether you’re in Kabul or headquarters, these are doable self-care strategies for you. Give them a try.
Five Pillars of Physical Self-Care
Your physical health comes first with self-care because without a strong, healthy body you are literally going nowhere. We often forget this because we’re so much “in our heads,” but without our bodies, we die. Forever. So pay attention.
Physical health includes how much sleep you get, how much stress you’re under, your hormonal balance, the drugs you take, whether you smoke and drink, what kind of food you eat and what kind of activity your body gets to enjoy in a standard day.
1. Clean Water
Drink enough water. Find the best-quality, purest, most natural water you can find. Drink a lot of it. A friend I met this summer who researches PTSD tells me that hydration is a major indicator of physical health.
You got that? Stay hydrated. Two to three liters a day is good for adults, unless you’re in the desert or high altitude, or it’s summer. Be sure to drink a glass of water first thing in the morning as well, as after sleeping your body really needs the hydration.
To get good water, buy a good water filter. If you do chose plastic water bottles, find a place that will deliver refillable water jugs and get or make this metal stand so you don’t need a cooler. We have a high-quality filter at our house so we can safely drink African tap water.
Either way, I encourage you to get a thermos or use a glass bottle to carry around your water so you can cut down on the number of plastic water bottles you buy. We’re responsible for our personal waste, so this really does matter.
If you’ve seen ‘What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?,’ you’re already familiar with Dr. Emoto’s photographs of water’s crystalline molecular form and how it responds to human intention and thought. The science behind this is still peripheral and debatable, but it’s interesting to think about.
To practice gratitude, I like to bless my foods and liquids, thanking the planet and all the people, plants and animals that made it possible for me to enjoy the life that I do. Since watching the quantum physics documentaries, I now enjoy smiling at and silently thanking my water as well.
Get enough sleep. Ideally, you can wake up without an alarm clock. I value my sleep. When I’m rested, I enjoy 8.5 – 9 hours every night. Sleep isn’t cumulative, and sure, you can use apps to figure out your biorhythms and sleep cycles, but ultimately, just give yourself time to get enough of it.
If your nighttime hours are still limited, try napping. A 12-minute nap can do wonders for your happiness, not to mention make you more alert and able to concentrate. Back at my Headquarters job, I used to take 12-minute naps at around 3pm daily, and was able to avoid the mid-afternoon slump. There was an area with sofas for us, and no one minded that I was gone.
I think of the workplace nap as a basic right, like a cigarette break but good for you. There’s still a lot of stigma about naps in the workplace, as if sleeping for the time it takes to go get a coffee is somehow lazy, when science shows us it makes us far more productive. Still, bless your job if you have a workplace that encourages you to nap.
So, give yourself the luxury of sleep to recover from stress, rebalance your hormones and restore your system’s equilibrium.
3. Of course, you also have to eat well.
Try to eat well. This is going to mean different things for different people, so find what works for you. I find that my physical health improves when I eat local food and botanicals, including herbal teas and special preparations that improve digestion and other body matters.
In Senegal, we drink bissap, a brew made from the red flowers of the hibiscus plant that makes a delicious iced tea. It is also high in antioxidants and a general blood tonic. I’m quite sure that your area has something similar — a drink meant to stimulate, or calm, or heal. It can be fun to explore local food culture in a quest to improve your physical self-care. And if you can replace a little bit of the caffeine and sugar that you normally drink with healthy local alternatives, you’ll be building a very healthy habit.
This brings me to an important point. For my self-care to truly feel good, down to every last cell in my body, it needs to be truly good and harmless to all. To me, that means organic, local products made by businesses near me that build community. For example, I source organic shea butter from Burkina Faso rather than buy imported Nivea Creme at the international supermarket. I use the local herbal teas instead of buying imported ones. And I eat the highest quality organic local produce I can find (but I don’t throw a fit when I can’t find it). It’s up to you to choose your own way; but numerous studies have shown that food loses its nutritional value over time and when heavily processed. Exploring the local food offerings can be fun and good for your human connection with where you live.
4. Reduce physical stress and get enough exercise.
I’m putting these together because nothing is better than to diffuse physical stress. Often, our physical movement outside our homes and offices is somewhat limited. Perhaps we can’t run in the evenings because our neighborhood has crime.
I encourage you to look into classes and DVDs that you enjoy, and be creative about how you use your environment to find exercise that interests you.
You can also choose to reduce the level of stress your body is exposed to. We’ll get more into the invisible stressors later in the Expat Self-Care series, but for now take a look at your physical environment — where you live, work, sleep and have fun. What could you change in just one of them to make the environment more pleasurable and relaxing?
I learned from being a yoga teacher that we drastically underestimate the levels of stress in our environment. When stress is battering us from all sides — friends leaving, poor diet, demanding boss and long hours at work — then we need to find ways to make our environment less stressful. In a yoga class, making small changes with things like noise levels, air quality, aromatherapy and lighting made big differences in how quickly my students could relax. Since I started translating that to physical environments in my day-to-day life, I have found it much easier to summon calm and relaxation.
You might be smiling at what I’ve written, thinking she’s a woman and a yoga teacher, how sweet that she put “love.” But I’ll have you know that I also have a Hopkins MPH and I’m deadly serious. Many studies show that feeling and giving love has massive impact on our lifespan. So does having friends and feeling like you had a happy childhood. Emotions, as we’ll explore later in the series, really matter.
Your environment probably offers you opportunities for cynicism every day; but try to be on guard when that cynicism tries to rob your of your ability to really connect with other people, to show them love and to receive love from them.
Self-care is the ability to care for ourselves — not the touchy-feeling kind of care, but our muddled, messy ability to choose what is in our best interests.
It’s not as easy as it sounds and I celebrate you whenever you try it.
I invite you to celebrate the radical adventurer in you: the explorer, the part of you that is fascinated with the challenging and the new. As I learned this summer when my husband taught at Singularity University, almost everything in the world is changing quickly on an exponential scale. We do well to learn and practice strategies that help us cope with stress and develop personal resilience.
It’s important that with all the challenges we face, we learn how to be strong.
I celebrate myself for choosing to live in Africa and be of service. I celebrate you for choosing the unique challenges that you face in the work and the service that you do.
Starting to improve your physical self-care creates energy and momentum. When you feel good, good things happen to you. Keep reading this “Self-Care Strategies for Expat Aid Workers” series and share this with a friend who you think might like it.
Next, we’ll be exploring emotional health and learning how to focus on our health and happiness. After all, when you feel good, aren’t you making the world a happier, more peaceful place?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about physical self-care. Send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).