How do you support others when you're struggling with your own issues?

Volunteering requires a certain level of selflessness.

Sure, it feels good to know we’re helping someone else.

But to regularly turn up and dedicate the time to others – no matter what life throws at you personally – is another thing.

The key is to ensure you’re looking after yourself alongside helping others. But how do you do that?

Yvonne has been volunteering for the Samaritans for six years in the north west of England.

The charity is free to call on 116 123 at any time and they provide a listening service to people struggling with their mental health, to varying degrees of severity.

Samaritans volunteers were granted key worker status during lockdown, so continued to do their shifts in person, meaning support remained ongoing despite challenges.

Naturally, the volunteering role comes with exposure to intense interactions with people in need of being listened to without judgement.

Yvonne tells that when it comes to balancing her personal issues alongside having the capacity to volunteer, ‘there’s a fine line’.

‘If I’m having a particularly bad day, the last thing I want to do is go in and not give the caller 100% of my presence,’ Yvonne says.

‘It really helps to put things into perspective and it gives you a motivation to look after yourself so that you can be there for others.’

The charity ensures that all volunteers check in with someone before and after shifts begin, to make sure they’re doing okay.

There’s also flexibility to take a break and switch to emails for a while if someone is struggling to cope on a volunteering shift.

Yvonne says: ‘In the beginning when I first started being a Samaritan, I really wanted to be there for everyone and every caller, but as time’s gone on I’ve put my own boundaries in place. It’s so important to give myself that compassion as well.’

Those boundaries for Yvonne might mean not going in one week, or simply exercising the charity’s own advice of talking it out.

When she opens up to her co-volunteers, she says she’s supported and ‘just like the caller, you feel unjudged – it’s such a beautiful space’.

She has also learnt to ‘hold the space [for callers]’ while respecting ‘it’s their process’ and they are ‘the expert’ on themselves, so even when she’s faced with a particularly challenging or triggering call, that mindset ensures she doesn’t take any conversations home with her.

There is a profound respect she holds for how callers can help her, too.

‘I do always feel better coming out of it,’ says Yvonne. ‘It grounds me and it takes me out of myself.

‘The caller will thank you nine times out of 10 on the end of the call, but they’ll never actually know what they’ve done for you. You feel connected, too.’

Being someone that keeps busy as a coping strategy when things are tough, volunteering helps Yvonne shift into a ‘reflective’ mindset and to ‘notice what’s going on’.

Clinical psychologist Dr Roberta Babb says that when we volunteer and help other, it can contribute to our ‘sense of self, self-worth and agency’.

‘Helping others is an altruistic activity, and one that can provide a person with a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose.

‘There is also research which demonstrates how volunteering and helping others can have a positive effect on mental health.

‘Volunteering acts can stimulate the production of hormones such as endorphins (a natural pain reliver) and serotonin (a feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (which can produce feelings of connection, empathy and trust which can increase a person’s self-esteem. It also has a physical impact in that it can reduce blood pressure).

‘Endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin are all important because they counter the effects and reduce the production of cortisol which is the body’s stress hormone.’

Sally, a branch director for the charity in south west Herts, feels that most of the time, volunteering shifts are an escape from her own life and help to cultivate positivity.

However, on the occasions they are too much, there’s room to adjust the shift or even step back entirely.

‘It’s enforced a lot in the training that we need to take breaks but I think when you first get on the phone, definitely my experience of it is you feel “Gosh, I’ve got to pick up the phone every second I’m in the building” and as you go through it you learn that actually that’s not how you can be the best for your callers,’ she says.

To look after her own wellbeing around volunteering, she’ll cycle to and from shifts or go for a run afterwards, as she explains it ‘gives me that space and time to leave that behind and come back into my life’.

Dr Babb tells us that when people delay their own emotional wellbeing to help others, they risk ‘volunteer burnout’.

‘If you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, sad, anxious or exhausted, when placed in situations where you are giving, and not being looked after, the risk of experiencing volunteer burnout increases,’ she says.

It’s possible to volunteer, reap the benefits and create healthy boundaries, but the key is to share the mental load.

‘Talking goes a long way to combatting the stressors of volunteering and reducing the experience of negative emotions, ensuring that you can continue to volunteer and that people benefit from what you have to offer,’ Dr Babb says.

Along with connecting to your ‘why’ for volunteering, it’s important to practise good self-care around times that involve supporting others – through volunteering or in general life.

There’s an art to balancing the desire to support others while not suppressing your own needs.

Sally says that her volunteering work comes with ‘a definite perspective’.

‘When you speak to someone who’s up against a huge issue and they’re surviving – which a lot of our callers are – it makes you think I have the capacity to survive as well,’ she explains.

Why she continues to show up every week, even when her own life is tough, is down to ‘a feeling of how close we all come to being in a very dark place.’

Dr Babb’s top for managing your wellbeing while volunteering

Self-care is any activity that we intentionally do in order to take care of our physical, mental and emotional health. There are several things that you can do to support their wellbeing after you have finished volunteering.

  • Talking to a peer or senior volunteer about the experience: Sometimes we are not always aware of when experiences can emotionally affect us and it is good practice to routinely check in with someone in the organisation before going home.
  • Boundaries are a form of self-protection: Know the environment you will be volunteering in, and how it may or may not affect you, then recognise what you can and cannot do, and what you may or may not want to do. Although speaking up about your needs may feel uncomfortable, to being able to say no is important when volunteering.
  • Following a volunteering experience, can change your clothes: This marks the start one experience (volunteering) and the start of another. This can be helpful as it can contain the volunteering experience. This may mean enable you to stop thinking about it, and switch off, as it does not intrude into other areas of your life which can feel overwhelming and intrusive. Think of it like a uniform.
  • Write about your experience in a journal: Volunteering is a powerful activity, and one through which we can learn a lot about ourselves, others and the world around us. Writing can be a helpful was of understanding and processing emotional experiences which can allow you to feel more settled and in control. It can also be rewarding to have a record of your volunteering experiences which you can come back to and read in the future.
  • Balance low feeling that can arise from volunteering: Volunteering can get us firmly in contact with what is not right in the world and the need for social justice. Making a meaningful and sustainable difference can feel quite challenging at times which can lead you feel low, sad, hopeless and helpless. Getting in contact with what you are grateful for and what you have done can be a helpful way of balancing the need for change and the change efforts.
  • Engage in self-care: This might include taking breaks during your volunteering shift/activity or longer breaks like annual leave.
  • Exercise or move: Movement can be helpful as it can mindfully connect our mind and body and ground us.

Anyone can contact Samaritans, free, any time, on 116 123, or you can email [email protected].

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.

Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here. 

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