For educators, social workers, and those in the human services field, the vital need for self-care to prevent burnout is becoming more obvious. In order to effectively do work with other human beings, we must cultivate deep, courageous self-care practices, or Radical Tendencies, to keep ourselves sustained in the change-making work this world needs. Cultivate an understanding of trauma, self-care, mindfulness and create compassionate, more healed systems of care for everyone with Nicole Steward founder of Radical Tendencies.
Hey Nicole, how is it all going?
It’s great! Thank you so much for chatting with me. I’m looking forward to engaging with your amazing audience!
Can you talk us through a typical 24 hour?
I can try…each day is different. I work as a social worker in a public school district with 10,000 students. As the only social worker for the whole district, each day is different. Some days I come in and all I have to do is check student schedules and maybe call a parent or two about their student’s attendance. Other days it’s talking a young student through an hours-long panic attack or helping a student get a referral to a rape crisis counselor or another mental health service outside of the school. Because each day is different, I really have to create some solid rituals around my day for my own self-care.
For me, that’s about creating a simple morning routine and having a few things that I can do when I get home from work to keep work at work and to be able to rest at the end of the day.
You decided to learn more about self-care and found yoga & mindfulness as a treatment to the vicarious trauma of social work and work in education, how did you get started?
I began to notice the reality of vicarious trauma while in grad school for my Master of Social Work (MSW). My internships were in residential mental health facilities, safe homes for abused kids, and doing research on sex offenders in order to understand how to prevent child sexual abuse. My first job out of grad school was as a rape crisis counselor, and this was during the height of the Catholic priest abuse scandal. The reality of sitting with the enormity of the pain of those I was serving came crashing down when I experienced my first real burn-out. It was rough. But it was during that burn-out that I recognized the need for radical self-care.
After my first burn-out (there have been 3…), I began gravitating toward yoga as a more holistic practice, not just for the ‘yoga booty’. I shifted my work from rape crisis to education, with the assumption that there would be less trauma in education. Boy, was I wrong! There is a lot of trauma in the education world, but their focus is academic, so the education community is just now coming around to the realisation that trauma is real and impacts students (and by default, academics) negatively. There is a renewed sense of urgency to help understand trauma and how it shows up in our schools.
During my work in education, I found the practice of pranayama (working with the breath) and I found mindfulness. I’ll never forget my first mindfulness practice. I felt my body relax and become still within 3 minutes of focused, mindful breathing, and I immediately thought, “THIS. This is amazing and this is what I have to share with everyone!” So I became certified to teach mindfulness to K-12 students and teachers.
During this time I was also a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), or a foster youth advocate. As I advocated for my 3 foster youth (who later became my foster kids as group homes and foster homes fell through), I noticed the negative impacts of caseworker/social worker turn-over in the social service agencies. My kids would get a new caseworker every 6-12 months and it got so bad that the kids would take the turn-over as a personal rejection or abandonment. You can imagine how hard that is for kids who already feel abandoned and are in a system that is supposed to care for them. There was no sustainability with the staff, which left the youth feeling uncared for and unsafe.
At first, I got angry. Then I began to understand the challenges faced by the caseworkers (high caseloads, little ongoing training) and decided to offer a solution instead of just complaints. I began reading everything I could on burn-out, trauma, neuroplasticity, and resilience (nerd alert). Then I asked the head of our local Department of Family & Children’s Services (DFCS) if I could offer a workshop on burn-out and self-care. They were thrilled and let me come in a few times to work with different groups of social workers. Word spread (ironically, as caseworkers left DFCS and went to other agencies…) and soon I was getting requests for workshops, retreats, and day-long professional development.
At the moment, I have to balance these requests with my day job. Moving forward, I’d like to build on this momentum and begin offering trauma-informed, mindfulness-based professional development to schools, organisations, and social service agencies full time. The time is right and there is a need for this awareness so we can all do a better job of helping ourselves and others.
How long have you been practicing?
I’ve been practicing yoga for about 20 years. In full honesty I started with the goal of getting that yoga booty…there was no more deep or spiritual desire it was purely for the yoga booty. What I didn’t know at the time was how healing my yoga practice could be for me. I began my yoga practice in a more serious way when I was getting my masters of social work degree and it helped me get through the stress of grad school as well as the overwhelming vicarious trauma that I was absorbing through the work I was doing. During the day I would work in residential facilities or with foster youth or in mental health facilities and then in the evenings and weekends I would try to work out as much stress as possible on the yoga mat. It wasn’t until sometime later that my yoga practice became much more deep and focused on healing trauma.
This led me to getting certified to teach yoga.I’ve been teaching yoga for almost 5 years now and I love it. I’m always a student and I’m a BIG NERD, so I’m constantly reading and researching to better understand this body of mine. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who was heard, believed, and protected from further abuse, I’ve come to realize that I got into social work to help heal my past and to protect other children from abuse. That realization drives my curiosity about the neurobiology of trauma, how vicarious trauma impacts those of us in the helping professions, and how yoga and mindfulness as deep, courageous self-care tools can help sustain us in this change-making work.
What is your favourite aspect of practising yoga?
For me, my favorite aspect of practicing yoga is being in my body on the mat. Yoga worked for me as a way of getting me back into my body after traumatic experiences in childhood that I wasn’t fully aware needed to be processed. One of my other favorite aspects of practicing yoga is that the more I deepen my own experience with yoga on the mat, the better teacher I am. Each practice gets deeper and juicier. I love sharing yoga with other people because I know how healing it can be.
Why do you enjoy this particular form of yoga so much?
I practice simple Vinyasa/Hatha Yoga, kind of basic Flow Yoga. I enjoy this particular form of yoga because of the way that it syncs the body in the breath together with a little bit of alignment and body awareness that really can bring healing into someone’s life. We have the science that tells us the power of yoga is with that synching of the body and the breath because it creates new patterns in our bodies. Trauma in our lives throws us off of the patterns and cycles that were used to and by moving slowly and purposefully with the body and the breath, we begin to create a new cycle that can be more healing.
It sounds a little cliche but how do you feel yoga can benefit us?
Actually not cliche at all, yoga benefits us in many ways and luckily for us, the science is catching up with what we’ve already known for a long time. There are studies that show us that when we have a regular yoga practice, moving the body in coordination with the breath, we have better health outcomes. Just thinking about the actions that you take on the mat -literally moving your body and breathing nice and deep- these things benefit the body very simply by making more oxygen available to the brain and increasing blood circulation. We know that when we inhale and exhale slowly we engage our parasympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic nervous system calms us down and gives us a sense of safety and belonging. So in yoga when we slow our exhales down we’re creating that muscle memory of safety in our bodies. When practiced consistently, yoga can help ease depression and anxiety and can also decrease the amount of inflammation in our bodies. All disease starts with inflammation, so a regular yoga practice can keep us healthy.
Another benefit of yoga is that when we are breathing and paying attention to our breath, we are in the present moment- its kind of a life hack-and because we are in the present moment, it’s harder for us to ruminate on the past which means past traumas can’t become intrusive or overwhelming (which is how trauma works, keeping us stuck in the past and recreating the fear in our bodies). When we’re on our yoga mat that’s the magic of yoga.
What advice would you give first-timers who may feel a little inadequate or shy about taking up Yoga?
I think it’s important that people who are new to yoga find a really good teacher.
Find a studio that makes you feel comfortable when you walk through the doors, makes you feel included and makes you feel welcomed. If you’re nervous about knowing the poses and knowing how to move your body try an online class first. YouTube and YogaGlo and a few other platforms offer free yoga.
Another bit of advice is to go with a friend either a friend who’s been to the class before or a friend who is also new to yoga…but going together can help ease some of the fear of going to a yoga class for the first time. There are always gentle / beginner yoga classes that you can find at most studios as well, so start there, trust that your body can handle the postures and the movements of yoga and enjoy! And remember, yoga is for everybody.
Why do you think self-care is such a taboo for us?
I think people confuse self-care for being selfish or self-centered. But it’s the basis of any happy life, literally caring for yourself. Being 100% accountable for your own feelings and actions is a sign of maturity and good “adulting”. A lot of times we equate self-care with outward things like manicures and pedicures and tropical vacations. But when you really break it down you begin to recognise that self-care is just a matter of taking care of your own “stuff” so that other people don’t have to, then we begin to look at it a little differently.
Self-care is the basics: it’s making sure you’re getting enough sleep, you’re eating enough food, you’re drinking enough water, you’re getting enough exercise, and you’re getting enough connection with other human beings. If any of these pieces in your life are missing (like sleep…) you’ll feel it immediately and it usually shows up in the nervous system or in our behavior. I think the word “hangry” is a perfect self-care word… literally saying “I haven’t eaten anything yet so my body’s a little dysregulated and I’m in a bad mood, so let me eat something and then I can engage with the world”. But truly recognising that if we don’t take care of those basic needs we can’t really do anything else well.
That’s what self-care is and I think people are coming around to understanding the vital need, the RADICAL need, for self-care.
Say we have a busy schedule and less time to dedicate to unwinding, what advice could you give us on how can we incorporate yoga into our lifestyles on weekly basis?
Many people equate yoga with the physical practice of Asana, however, there are 8 limbs to yoga and Asana is just one. (YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows, NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances, ASANA – Posture, PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques, PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal, DHARANA – Focused concentration, DHYANA – Meditative absorption, SAMADHI – Bliss or enlightenment.)
One of the easiest ways to help unwind and calm your nervous system down is through the breath. In yoga, this is called Pranayama, one of the 8 limbs. Regardless of how busy we are, we always have access to our breath which means if we are really busy maybe the only yoga we can do that day is taking three deep breaths between appointments or when we’re in the car on the way home.
For me personally, I try to incorporate a really short yoga practice in the morning when I wake up. It may be only 10 to 20 minutes where I do a series of 5 poses repeatedly or maybe it’s only two poses that I repeat for a few minutes but that usually sets my day off on the right track. My days are pretty busy with appointments and calls, so I tap into my own pranayama practice when I’m at work. For me that looks like taking a deep breath before I answer the phone, taking some deep breaths before I meet with a student or their parents, and doing a little bit of meditation in my car on the way home and before I get into my house so that I can leave my work stress at work.
Another way to practice yoga and incorporate it into our busy lifestyles is by practicing the Niyamas, or the positive duties/observances, of yoga. Non-violence (Ahimsa) and truthfulness (Satya) are two of the five Niyamas. Making sure that as you walk through your day you’re practicing being honest, speaking the truth and not bringing violence to anyone or anything through our words or actions. This is a practice of yoga and it’s available to us in every moment.
As entrepreneurs, how can we prevent burnouts?
I think in order to prevent burnouts we have to be very in tune with our bodies and our brains. We have to be aware when stress starts to accumulate in our bodies and when our brains are a little bit off…maybe we’re thinking very negatively and can’t hold space for hope or opportunities. As soon as we’re able to NOTICE that we feel this way or something is off, then we have to be able to NAME our feeling. Simply saying out loud, “I feel like crap” or “I’m tired” or “I’m so frustrated” help us deescalate a little bit of the stress in our brain, specifically in amygdala. Once we have noticed that we need some help and we’ve been able to name how we’re feeling when we have to take ACTION. That action could simply be getting yourself a tall glass of water to drink because you’re feeling dehydrated, or that action could be something bigger like quitting a job that makes you feel like crap.
But as entrepreneurs, especially if we’re working alone often, we may not have anyone near us who can let us know when things seem like they’re getting out of hand, so it’s very important that was in tune with ourselves and we can be honest when we need some support. Building a circle of supportive people is vital for any entrepreneur to help prevent burn-out.
The other thing to know is simply that you can’t prevent all burnouts…sometimes things just aren’t matching up, or we experience a really traumatic situation, and it really stresses our system to a point where burnout inevitably happens. It’s important to note that if we do have to deal with a burn-out the best thing to do coming out of it as simply to learn from it. Find out what our triggers were, what created the stress, what caused the burnout, and how to set up boundaries that help avoid that in the future. That’s really important to learn from our burnout and to not beat yourself up if you find yourself burnt.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
One of my favourite pieces of advice is to never compare your beginning to someone else’s end.Meaning, if you’re just getting started in a business or in a project or in a new area of expertise, don’t compare yourself to people who’ve been in the field for 10, 20, 30 years. That’s been really helpful for me as I’ve been developing my own business, feeling like I’m behind the eight-ball. I’m not creating a new business at 22, so it makes it feel as though I should be further than I am. But that’s BS. It’s a constant reminder that I’m exactly where I need to be.
Can you talk to us about Radical Tendencies, how has the journey been since launching?
Radical Tendencies has been my baby for a long time but it’s just now being birthed into the world. The word RADICAL means “grasping at the root” or “basic foundation” and the word TENDENCIES means “habits or ways of being”. I came up with the term Radical Tendencies after an experience at a middle school many years ago.
I was a social worker doing behavioral interventions with middle school students and a group of teachers and a principal came to me about a specific student they were worried about. This was a young man who lived with a single mom, the father was incarcerated, and his grades were beginning to drop and he was getting in trouble. The assumptions were that there were all kinds of trauma or discord in the home, that he wasn’t being cared for, or that his mother may not think education was really important. After hearing from the teachers and the principal I did a classroom observation of the student and found that he was sitting in the back of the room squinting at the front chalkboard.
After observing him for a while I noticed that he would try to pay attention and watch what was happening at the front of the class, but when he couldn’t see what was happening he would start fidgeting or messing with the kids near him and get in trouble. So when it came time to do an intervention, my intervention was to get his mother signed up for medical insurance to get him to an eye doctor and get his glasses. I worked with the family on this and it took about two weeks for the student to get his glasses. It only took two months for his grades to come back to A’s and B’s and for him to start paying attention in class because he could finally see the board. After the group of teachers and principals got together to meet and discuss his change in behavior, they were all curious what interventions I had done that was so successful with this young man. When I told him the only intervention that I had done was making sure he had glasses so he could see the board everybody was shocked. I remember one teacher leaning over and saying, “Wow that’s some radical stuff.” And from that point on Radical Tendencies was born.
For me, it’s a reminder that things can look really overwhelming and complicated but sometimes there’s a really simple solution if we really look at what’s underlying the behavior or the situation. This is also true about our brains, bodies, and behavior. Sometimes we may not understand why we behave a certain way or why others behave a certain way, and it’s not until we look at the very simple things- the root causes of stress and trauma- that we can actually have some impact and help people heal.
Fortunately, in the last few years, I found audiences in all different kinds of employment are really eager to hear this message. I started doing professional development with teachers and social workers around understanding the trauma that was showing up in their classroom- how it shows up in the bodies and brains of the students and then in the behaviors in their classroom- as well as mindfulness and self-care techniques. The more professional development I offered, the more was requested. Now I have agencies that work with vulnerable populations like foster care, juvenile justice, mental health, and addiction, etc. reaching out to me for support.
Some of this is the realization that burnout is real and that it eventually hits the bottom lines of organizations and companies. If an organization does not pay attention to the burn out of their employees they end up spending a lot of money hiring and training people who don’t stay. They also end up feeling it when it comes to the outcomes of their clients. When you have a lot of staff turnover you can’t have positive client impacts because there’s constant shift in who is doing what. So many organizations in 2016 and 2017 were coming to the realization that they had to take the burn out and the self-care of their employees seriously. This is where Radical Tendencies work comes in. In order to help your employees with self-care and avoid burnout, it is really helpful to understand what stress is, how it shows up in the body, how it shows up in our behaviour, how it impacts our personal lives and our professional lives, and what can we do about it when we notice it.
I’m hoping that 2018 is the biggest year yet for Radical Tendencies. I think we’re at a point, nationally and globally, where we all recognize that trauma is real and that if we don’t address it head-on it takes us over and we all lose. Understanding trauma and having the tools to move it out of our bodies is vital to continuing to live in a peaceful world and I feel right now people are striving for that. People want hope back. They want to believe in the goodness of others and they want to see good in others, and in order to see good in others, we have to see good in ourselves…which takes us back to self-care.
You have created this space for like-minded change-makers to exchange ideas and support each other, so what does it mean to you to truly #BEYOUROWN?
#BEYOUROWN means finding your own passions, the things that drive you, the things that get you up in the morning, and the things that excite your heart. The false and dangerous narrative of scarcity and of competition keeps us all small where we assume the other people are doing things bigger and better and there’s not enough space for all of us. But Be Your Own shoots that down…it’s a recognition that we each have something to give, we each have something to contribute, we each have something unique that other people need from us. That doesn’t mean spouting off at the mouth about things you don’t know,, it simply means recognizing that you have knowledge and experiences that can be shared with the world and that you can do your thing even if it’s other people’s thing too.
Finally, what can we expect from you in 2018?
As I mentioned before, I think 2018 is a year where people are truly understanding the need for knowledge about trauma and self-care. My personal goal is to shift away from my day job and focus on my business full-time. I’m reaching out to school districts, nonprofits, and organizations to offer workshops, keynotes, and professional development to teachers, social workers, students, parents, probation officers, police officers, counselors, addiction/recovery counselors… anyone who does helping or healing work with other people. I feel like we’re at a point where there’s a tsunami wave of awareness of trauma and a desire to heal it for ourselves personally, and for other people in our communities.
My hope Is that by the end of 2018 I will have workshops and professional development booked out for months and maybe even a few online courses available as well. I’m hoping to write a book about my journey with Radical Tendencies, specifically focusing on the deep, courageous self-care that it takes to work with vulnerable populations and to continue this change making work.
Twitter: @YogaSteward | Instagram: @yoga_steward