March 25, 2021

"Take Care of Yourself!" A Reflection of Wellness as Daily Practice

By Ashley Engeler |

Sometime in late May of 2020, it happened. I was preparing dinner with my partner, when we realized we were short an ingredient. It wasn’t a huge deal; we’d improvised before. But suddenly, looking around my kitchen, this minor snag in routine caused me to see every imperfection: the spot I’d missed sweeping; the dishes in the sink; our disorganized counter space. At that moment, something snapped. I started crying, and didn’t stop for close to an hour.

Of course, this emotional onslaught wasn’t actually about my messy kitchen or our lack of sour cream. Two months prior, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Less than a week after that, residents of the Salt Lake Valley were shaken awake by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake.

I, like countless other professionals working in education and youth development, had spent the last sixty-odd days passing through these experiences with a sense of unending urgency, pivoting to what quickly became known as a “new normal.” We rebuilt our programs to digital forums and soldiered on daily with split-second problem-solving and resolve. There had been little to no space to process the very real collective trauma that a pandemic and natural disaster brought to our communities and ourselves.

When humans experience significant and prolonged amounts of stress, our emergency response systems are triggered for a period of time longer than we are accustomed to. Unmanaged, we know that this kind of stress can have pervasive effects on our health and well-being (outlined at length by the American Psychological Association), and express itself in ways we don’t expect. In my case, it just so happened to manifest as a solid ugly cry over a pile of shredded cheese, a jarring reminder that I needed to practice some much needed self-care.

As a seasoned (or insufferable, depending on who you ask) advocate for self-care, especially for those working in education, it’s important to revisit what the phrase actually means and why it’s so important. Self-care, most broadly defined, refers to activities intended to enhance energy, restore health, and reduce stress. Most who work with students through and beyond the school day are drawn to the field out of an empathic desire to help others, but unchecked, this same empathy can overextend itself to put the needs of others first, resulting in compassion fatigue and burnout. A commitment to self-care strategies is necessary for educators to recenter our own needs so that we can better respond to the needs of others.

Because as humans, our individual needs are the result of our unique experiences, self-care practices look different for everyone, and fluctuate with our circumstances. They may range from a long hike to creative expression to just taking a nap. There is, however, one core habit that can operate to guide and enhance any individual self-care strategy: mindfulness.

Mindfulness has a variety of working definitions, but perhaps the most concise is described by a longtime expert in the field, Jon Kabat-Zinn, as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Such awareness gives us the opportunity to notice and acknowledge not only what is happening around us, but also what is happening within us. It can be performed anytime, anywhere, and requires no certification; just a commitment to intentionally noticing. Strategies can be as simple as taking a five-breath pause, or as complex as a guided body-scan or meditation, and many exercises for any stages of practice can be found online.



That evening in May, mindfulness gave me the means to define what I needed. As I found a big feeling bubble over, I took notice of my senses and surroundings. I also took notice of what emotion I was experiencing (see the mood meter below, developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence for a helpful tool to identify and name emotions), and rather than judging my stress, simply acknowledged it. Because of the context of my circumstance, I identified my self-care need in that moment as giving myself the space and time to cry, drinking a glass of water, and going to bed early.

I’d like to say that my ten months following the sour cream incident have been a model display of emotional health, but alas, I am not a perfect person, and mindful self-care is not a panacea for the challenges we face in our field. Sometimes, I snap at my partner, or internalize stress, or just feel down. The beauty of mindfulness, however, is that its goal is practice, not perfection, and I find that the more I practice, the more routinely I am able to respond to myself with less judgment, and in turn, show up better for others. And after the year we’ve had, any routine that helps us to be there for each other is one I’ll gladly champion.

Further Reading/Online Resources:

Ashley Engeler is the Program Director for Playworks Utah.

This blog post has been provided by Ashley Engeler