A Psychiatrist's Take: Physical Self-Care

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In honor of Self-Care Month, we are continuing our series on the various aspects of self-care. I sat down with Barney, one of our psychiatrists, to get a physician’s perspective on physical self-care. Over the years he has served global workers in many locations, both in person and via videoconference, and has unique insight on the challenges faced in caring for oneself in a cross-cultural setting.

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When you think of the physical aspects of self-care, what would you say that includes?

In the context of mental health, the stuff we deal with—anxiety, depression, trauma, etc.—people ask, “Is there something I can do to help myself from a purely physiological standpoint?” The only scientifically and repeatedly proven action to have an impact on anxiety and mood disorders is regular aerobic exercise. That’s harder to do in some places than others but even a brisk walk 3-4 times a week is considered helpful. [It may not always help but] it doesn’t hurt, assuming there are no other medical restrictions.

What would you recommend for people looking to do physical self-care more preventatively? They may not be struggling yet but want to set themselves up well.

Besides regular exercise, the other single thing I recommend is establishing as much rhythm as possible: eating at the same times each day, trying to get a sleep cycle established, trying to set aside time for exercise and for meditation and prayer. That can become really hard in other cultures and situations where so much is outside of your control. You wind up in a reactive rather than proactive mood. Establish and maintain basic biological and life rhythms as much as you can.

Also, many people who serve in other locations aren’t aware of the issue of Seasonal Affective Disorder due to the change in the light environment. They may not anticipate the effect that the decrease in daylight hours and sunshine can have on them. That can really dictate sleep cycle, energy cycle. Pay attention to the seasonal and light exposure issues if there’s a significant difference from what you’re used to. The good news is we do have means by which that can be addressed, special lights that can be used.

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What are helpful questions to ask yourself when figuring out your physical self-care needs?

From a physician standpoint, we ask about the basics: Is your weight stable (as opposed to significant loss or gain without intent)? Is your sleep cycle fairly stable? What activities are restorative or rejuvenating for you and how regularly are you doing those? How do you take a break? How do you take a Sabbath? Life on the field is mostly about adaptation but sometimes you adapt past the point that is healthy; you give up things that would be restorative.

What are areas people tend to neglect or overlook when it comes to physical self-care?

Simply paying regular attention to self-care rather than, say, skipping meals so you can do greater work. Yes, God did bring you there and he might want you to still be there five years from now! Attend to that which seems rather mundane, because over time it helps you maintain your availability to do what he wants you to do. It’s intentionality from a proactive stance. If he wants you to be his hands and feet, are you letting yourself develop bunions?

What are some of the unique challenges that global workers face in this area?

I think of my current setting: I made a move I didn’t choose, but now I’m at home here. I can do everyday tasks with a fair degree of control. That only takes a small amount of the energy I wake up with because I’m in a familiar zone, in a country where most things I want are available, I can multitask and I have the energy to do it most of the time. If I move to another country where resources, language, timing and expectations are different, it might take 50% of my available energy to just get by during the day. Instead of being able to do 5 or 10 things in a day, if I can get one thing done every day, I can feel pretty good.

It’s just harder to live in another culture for many reasons: emotionally, geopolitically, etc. It’s more energy- and time-consuming. Those numbers can change over time as you adjust and figure things out. But in the early years, if we aren’t prepared for the way things are in our new country, we can be quick to interpret struggles and delays as, “I must be failing.” How do I respond when I lose control and/or can’t make things work the way I did back home? That’s when it helps to work on developing self-awareness, asking what’s God trying to tell me, etc. along with developing realistic expectations of yourself and what you can accomplish in a day.

For other posts in our self-care series, click here.

If you would like to meet with one of our counselors or psychiatrists as part of your own self-care, click here to Get Started.