Mindful social work: ‘I was really empathising, not just planning my well-versed response’

Learning to use mindfulness techniques is not easy, says Mia Holmes, but can really help with the emotional challenges and stresses of social work

'I'm now more present in any conversation.' Photo: Photofusion/Rex (posed by models)

Mia Holmes, social worker, West Berkshire

I’d heard of mindfulness of course. It was something that seemed to be quite fashionable but I didn’t really know what it was and how it could benefit me. I had attempted meditation before as part of practising yoga, but never made it past a couple of minutes until I got bored and distracted.

So when the public health team at the council offered mindfulness training to staff, I was intrigued and jumped at the chance to take the course.

During the first session, as we all sat in silence studying the intricate details of a raisin in the palm of our hands, I did wonder what on earth I was doing. I wasn’t sure if would manage the remaining seven sessions I had committed to.

However, once I had decided to stick with the programme, I slowly but surely began to feel the benefits of taking time to relax and consider things in a mindful way and am still feeling those benefits some months on as I continue to use the techniques when I can, in my work and outside of it.

Coping with the daily challenges

I really value tools that can help in how I react to the daily challenges of the job. The more I think about it, the more I believe that being a social worker requires a healthy mind to cope with what comes up when working with vulnerable people.

My role involves working with older people in hospital settings and in the community so it is often based around, or related to risk. Conversations with family members, health and other professionals are often about ‘worst-case scenarios’ and they divulge their fears about someone or something.

I am therefore constantly assessing risk and how to act on it, whilst dealing with and responding to a full range of human emotions.

I’m very aware that the decisions I take impact on people’s lives, but they also have to take into account considerations such as budgets and resources, legal frameworks, local policies and processes and professional codes of practice.

Similar challenges arise in all social work roles, so arming ourselves with the resilience that mindfulness teaches you to build is an incredibly helpful tool.

But it is a journey with its own challenges and some steep learning curves.

The eight-week course started by helping us to identify how we react to stressful situations. By focusing on the breath and by actively bringing attention, without judgment (as best you can!) to what is going on in your body and mind and your environment, you learn a lot about yourself.

It has taught me to look curiously at unpleasant or fearful feelings and welcome them instead of treating them as an unwanted guest.

Being kind to myself

For me, this had good and bad effects. The ‘bad’ was that I suddenly became very aware of aches and pains in my body, and of my own emotions that maybe weren’t always too positive.

But, on the upside, I learnt to be kind to myself during these times and accept that those were the emotions I was having at that point in time, which had a positive impact on the actions I took.

I particularly noticed this was when I was being shadowed by a colleague and had to explain our processes to her. This would normally make me nervous as I would be acutely aware that my team around me would be listening and may have different opinions on how we do things or the best way to explain it.

But I was more aware of the anxiety – the feeling in my stomach, my tendency to take shallow breaths, the tightness in my chest. And I was able to breathe through it all and therefore not be overwhelmed by it. I realised what was going on my own body and was able to carry on. 

I have realised that the act of breathing, which we all take for granted, can be a powerful coping tool when done mindfully. Being kind to yourself gives a better perspective and makes scary situations manageable.

No end goal

I have somehow started (‘started’ being the word – mindfulness doesn’t have an end goal, it’s about personalised progression) to train my brain to be more focused. And this has benefited all aspects of my life.

I’m now able to be more present in any conversation instead of thinking about other cases, worrying about things that happened yesterday or planning for what’s happening next or tomorrow.

This has made me a better communicator, benefiting me and those around me.

I practice mindfulness daily now. I’m still learning about how mindfulness can change the way I think but here’s one example from my work recently:

I was sitting with an elderly couple discussing their care at home for the wife when she left hospital. They had both been through a lot over the past few weeks. I felt my responses to them were more sincere than they would have been before.

I was really empathising, instead of planning my well-versed professional’s response. I was just reacting from the heart to what they were sharing with me and I felt that they had a more genuine interaction with me as a result.

It also reminded me that I love communicating with people and supporting them as best I can, which is why I do this job.

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One Response to Mindful social work: ‘I was really empathising, not just planning my well-versed response’

  1. Victoria April 16, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    I really liked reading this. Well done to you on recognising that mindfulness would help you to function better in your role.