In any job it is important for the employee to take care of themselves so that they can remain physically and mentally able not only in their job but also in their personal life. This is even more true in high-stress professions or in professions that take place within a difficult work setting such as hospitals, courts or prisons.
Stress is a dangerous factor that can greatly affect a person’s life. The French physiologist, Claude Bernard, wrote that if a life is to be maintained we must keep our “internal milieu constant in the face of a changing environment” (Schneiderman, 2008). This definition can be summed up in one word: homeostasis. The word “stress” then represents any thing or event that can severely affect homeostasis (2008). According to the authors of the article “Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants,” N. Schneiderman, G. Ironson and S.D. Siegel, short-term stressors do not usually threaten the health of young and healthy people, but if a stressor continues long-term it can damage the health of anyone regardless of age or physical well-being (2008). When a person is stressed they may witness changes in their physical body, actions and thoughts (Crisis Centre). Being able to recognize these changes makes it easier to reduce and manage stress. Changes in your body could include headaches, stomach aches and changes in your ability to sleep and maintain an appetite (Crisis Centre). Changes in your actions could be increased use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, neglect of relationships, a short temper and inability to sit still or be quiet (Crisis Centre). Difficulty concentrating and remembering, lack of judgement and negative self-confidence, self-talk or overall attitude are signs that a person’s thinking might have changed due to stress (Crisis Center). Recognizing stress is an important aspect of keeping yourself healthy and happy.
Vicarious traumatization or compassion fatigue describes how caring for other can impact an individual (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2011). Since a prison chaplain works with inmates that may have difficult life stories, the residue from the inmate’s stories wear off onto the chaplain. In a way, the chaplain becomes a witness to the awful pain and fear that the inmate endured. When a counselor is experiencing vicarious traumatization they may become almost numb by avoiding discussing or contemplating the inmate’s stories or they may be in a consistent state of arousal (2011). This trauma is very real and can directly impact a chaplain’s professional and personal life. A chaplain may lose sleep, have drastic mood and emotion changes, begin struggling to work with their colleagues, become apathetic or avoid work responsibilities (2011). If you would like to see a full list of symptoms they can be found here.
Vicarious traumatization can greatly influence a chaplain’s life but it can be overcome through self-care.
Self-care is normally neglected in the chaplain profession because their ministry is thought to require self-sacrifice and self-neglect since it is focused on serving others. When this idea is held by a chaplain it forces them to believe that self-care is not needed or that it is selfish. It may even make them feel guilty if they do believe that they need to take care of themselves (Headley, 2015). This idea is not based on Biblical Scripture. In fact, self care is spoken of with great importance. In the book of Genesis, God creates the entire world in seven days for humans. His job is focused on others (creating a universe for humans), but he still takes the last and seventh day to rest and care for Himself. God is demonstrating a healthy life and work balance by resting instead of participating in endless work (2015). Jesus also displayed a healthy balance throughout his ministry in the Gospels. After serving the masses and doing all of the work God had called Him to do, Jesus would retreat into quiet places or the homes of others to rest. Lastly, Jesus’ disciples were also given time to rest. Chapter six in the book of Mark shows Jesus holding his disciples to realistic standards. His men had been working hard in the villages but Jesus pulled them aside and instructed them to rest with Him. God recognized that self-care is a crucial element in our lives, hoping to lead us by example. All of the Biblical examples prove that just because a person is serving in ministry does not mean that they must or should neglect their own needs (2015).
After a chaplain has decided to begin caring for themselves they can create a self-care plan. According to Reachout.com, “a self-care plan can help you enhance your health and well-being, manage your stress, and maintain professionalism as a worker…” (Reachout.com, 2018). An important thing to remember with a self-care plan is that it is a completely individual matter. There are no two similar self-care plans. The categories a chaplain can consider for their plan are professional, physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual (2018). To begin creating your own plan it is important to reflect on yourself and your stressors to decide exactly what you need and remember that anything can be added or taken out of this list over time. Activities under the professional section may include reading journals from your field, find a more experienced person in your field and ask them to be your mentor and establish strict boundaries between yourself and the inmates. Physical focuses on your body so some activities are sleeping on a regular schedule, eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising, taking a bath and using your sick leave when you need it. Intellectually engaging and having a clear mind is the goal with psychological self-care. Activities that could fall into this category are keeping a journal, starting a non-work hobby, choosing not to work and making time to just relax and think. And the last is emotional self-care. It prioritizes allowing yourself to feel the complete range of emotions. Activities could include developing friendships that are supportive, writing a gratitude journal or meeting with a therapist. A self-care plan encompasses every aspect of life and it can be used to help a person feel happier and healthier.
American Counseling Association (2011). Vicarious Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/docs/trauma-disaster/fact-sheet-9—vicarious-trauma.pdf
Crisis Centre (Unknown). Coping and Self-Care. Retrieved from https://crisiscentre.bc.ca/coping-and-self-care/.
Reachout.com (2018). Developing a Self-Care Plan. Retrieved from https://schools.au.reachout.com/articles/developing-a-self-care-plan.
Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S.D. (2008). “Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 1. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/.