Neurobiology of Self-Care

This article was authored by Marina Dickson,
Program Manager, Vocational Training and Education at the Australian Childhood Foundation.

As professionals in the helping professions there is a strong focus on the idea self-care. How do you look after yourself in the context of this work? However, this focus often doesn’t answer the question of why do you look after yourself in the context of this work? Self-care can be seen as a nebulous, ‘feel good’ concept that has little relevance to the ‘real work’ of health, welfare and education professionals.

This blog entry explores self-care from a neurobiological perspective and clearly places it at the centre of effective practice in work with traumatised children, young people and families.

Neurosequential development- the brain develops from the bottom up

Neurobiology tells us that healthy development of the lower parts of the brain enables healthy development of the higher parts of the brain. The strategies we have traditionally taken as self-care strategies are often linked to the lower parts of the brain. Actually, when you think about self-care strategies you may often find them linked to childhood experiences of nurturing (e.g.: hugs, massage, being read to etc.)

This links to the fact that invariably we can’t think our way into looking after ourselves- self-care needs to be about actions, even if that action is something like sleeping! These actions focus on activities that support the healthy function of the lower parts of the brain (sub-cortical)

A lot of self-care activities do not involve words- they are experiential and body based as this helps us feel safe and well when these parts of our brain and body are experiencing regulation.

Regulated states enable efficient use of our pre-frontal cortex

The pre frontal cortex is the ‘executive’ centre of the brain. And it works best when we are calm. Calm means regulated in the context of neurobiology. Being able to stay calm, through the use of regular self-care activities, in the midst of trauma enables us to think more clearly and to be more able to support the children, young people and families we work with.

Holding a regulated state also is core in terms of our capacity to prevent vicarious trauma- or others’ trauma we may end up experiencing as our own. The concept of vicarious trauma and its prevention and management goes beyond the scope of this blog entry but will be explored in later posts.

Human brains develop best in connection with other human brains

Of course, a core concept of work with traumatised clients is the use of relationships as a site of healing and repair.

In early childhood, we learn regulation through co-regulatory relationships with those who are important in our lives. When working with children who have been abused, we often need to provide those regulatory experiences. We can only do this effectively when we are regulated or, as Pat Ogden and others describe it, in our window of tolerance.

However, to be able to provide relational repair in our work we need relationships in our own life which are regulatory and supportive/nurturing. Often self-care activities involve others. (eg: walking, back rubs, yoga)

Repetition builds brains

We need to understand that a one off yoga class might be lovely but isn’t necessarily going to make a significant difference to our well-being. Repetition of experience works with all activities in terms of the brains’ capacity to strengthen neuronal connections to facilitate activity. It is the same for self-care strategies and their capacity to help us be most effective in our practice.

Examples of self-care strategies

A final point about self-care is that one person’s self-care can be another person’s stress so you need to choose strategies that work for you. The following list provides a range of strategies suggested by participants in past Graduate Certificate in Developmental Trauma courses and may provide a starting point for you thinking about how you can look after yourself in your work, as well as a reinforcement of why it is important. The ideas are provided alphabetically as this can be a quick and easy way to both brainstorm and plan self-care activities. You may like to add your own ideas to this list!

A- aromatherapy, art, apps, apple picking

B- bath, breathing, bike riding

C- caring for others, caring for myself, cooking

D- dancing, driving, drawing, drumming

E- eating, exercise,

F- friends, fun, flying

G- gardening, grandparenting, gliding

H- humour, holding hands, hugs

I- imagining, igloo building (someone really did put this!)

J- jokes, joyful activities

K- knitting, kite flying, kisses

L- loving, laughter, lacrosse

M- massage, meditation, mindfulness

N- novels, new experiences, nanna naps

O- orienteering, opera, origami

P- playing, parties, pets

Q- quiet time, questions, quests

R- reading, relaxation, rogaining

S- shopping, sleeping, swinging, singing, sweeping

T- tv, talking, training

U- uplifting experiences or people

V- vacuuming

W- whistling, walking

X- x-box, xylophone playing

Y- yelling, yoga

Z- Zumba, zoo visits