Transforming Caregiver Stress into Compassion Resilience

4 Essential Ingredients for Self Care Practice

For Blocked Care prevention and recovery to be effective and sustainable over the long term,  we have to go beyond traditional definitions and understanding of self care, and incorporate practices that are intentional, embodied, somatic and relational.


Carers, especially those whose role means knowing trauma, face the kind of special challenges that mean we simply cannot afford to leave our self-care to chance.

The problem is, too many programs under-estimate, or even diminish, the true experience of caregiving, and fail to acknowledge the impact that stress and trauma has on our body, mind, identity, perceptions, beliefs, integrity and coping mechanisms.

As a result, most self-care advice merely skims the surface when it comes to meeting deeper resiliency needs. We soon discover the value of such advice is short-lived, and it can even risk spiralling us into worse despair and shame, when we discover we haven’t ‘gotten over’ our compassion fatigue as expected, despite doing what we were told, doing more, or doing less, or working harder.

What has to be taken on board, is that accumulated, chronic stress and trauma – whether primary or secondary – leads to a breakdown in our relationships – to ourselves, to others, and to our environments. And that means we must build specific resiliency skills if we are to face, witness and expose ourselves to the distress of others, with courage, confidence and dignity.

Our self-care must be fit for purpose. Thats why the SomaSmart model focuses on practices that are intentionally designed to move us away from the stress orientation of contraction, isolation, shame and helplessness, towards restoring safety, connection, self-agency, and power.


Having good intentions is vital, but that doesn’t mean we can take skilful action when we want or need to.

Compassion is especially vulnerable to stress, and the problem is, it is precisely in those moments when we need to extend our care the most – such as when our children or clients are behaving rudely or aggressively – that our best intentions fly of the window.

Our caregiving role often shakes us with full force, and we can easily lose our balance, especially when we are on the receiving end of anger, rejection, or criticism.  That’s when we discover the our clients’ trauma has become our trauma, our child’s anger has become our anger, our patient’s distress has become our distress.

If our resources are not resilient enough to lead us towards repair and recovery, our social engagement and executive functioning systems crash, and our caregiving potential gets blocked.

We truly can’t give away that which is not already securely embodied within us. We can and do try…but it almost always comes at a great cost – in terms of distress, overwhelm, frustration, and burn-out.

10157369_10152356007357603_7542257509348904919_nThat’s why we want our intentions to hold out under pressure, and be available when we need them, over the long term.  We want to learn how to integrate them into our daily lives, into our relationships, and into our nervous system.  In that way, they are no longer an abstract idea – something outside of ourself that we aim for – they become our lived reality, expressed in the way we move, speak, act and feel.

Caregiving is tough, and it can take us out of our selves, out of our bodies, and, eventually, out of our minds! Embodiment brings us back to our senses, brings us back to being fully present, open and alive.

Somatic Practice is the gateway to embodying our intentions, and the key to closing the gap between who we are and who we choose to be.

“Good intentions are not enough. Wanting to be a peaceful person is a nice idea, and we can spend the whole day thinking peaceful thoughts, but we can still get triggered into an aggressive state, in an instant”


Through somatic self-care practices we learn how to fiercely nourish our internal sense of safety, self-acceptance and self-agency, so we can restore – or perhaps discover for the first time – our own secure base, and live a more easeful and meaningful life.

We can’t change our reactivity, relieve our stress, or build compassion resiliency using our mind alone. We can read every book, attend every lectures, say daily self-affirming affirmations and try to think differently about our situation, but knowing what we should do, doesn’t mean we can take skilful or sustainable action.

Caregiving is not a logical process learnt through theories and behaviour models. It is a visceral, sensory, emotional, embodied experience.  Our historic patterns, and our chronic stress, is held in the body and the nervous system. What we think, is directly shaped by the body we live in, and when we are under pressure, its the body’s implicit patterns and behaviours that win out. Since it’s the body that holds the charge, it is through the body that we find the most direct and accelerated route to change.

Unfortunately, the body-mind connection  often gets overlooked in conversations about compassion fatigue and resilience, though it is a powerful route to wisdom and transformation.

The SomaSmart model includes body-centered tools that consciously build the ‘somatic muscles’ for the qualities of integrity, stability, dignity and inclusivity, so they can be anchored in the body, and available to us when under pressure.

At the heart of somatic practice is restoring identity and meaning, so we can stay resilient, and anchored to what we care most about, when it really matters.  When we can do this, we live according to self-determination, rather than being at the mercy of external influences.

We then explore what supports us to move forward on our intentions, and discover what gets in our way, and stops us in our tracks.  Our self-care practices are intentionally chosen for the sake of growing and realising our chosen concerns and intentions.

For the of us who struggle with nurture and self-care, this may mean nourishing our Attachment Systems so we can not only soak up support, compassion and care for ourselves, but insulate ourselves from PTSD.

For others, it may mean learning how to healthily express and process, rather than suppress, intense or difficult emotions such as anger or grief.

For the majority, it means learning how to expand our window of tolerance, so we can take in more incoming stress, and  discovering how can we decompress, and release some of some of that toxic energy, so we don’t end up drowning in empathy at the end of the day.


Caregiving does not happen in isolation. It happens within the context of relationship.  And unfortunately, our relationships can be the biggest source of stress in our lives.

It is when we come into contact with those we care for, or with our colleagues, or our superiors, or with social and cultural norms and expectations, that our attachment and survival systems can get triggered.

This is especially true if there is a lack of reciprocity in our relationships, when those we serve are resistant, critical, oppositional and rejecting of our care, or if there is trauma symptomatology present in any part of the system. Traumatic stress is contagious.

This is not our fault – we are wired to take defensive action for the sake of minimising discomfort, and protecting our safety, dignity and belonging.  It’s what our bodies are meant to do – in the short-term.  The problem comes when we get stuck in states of contraction and collapse,  and react in ways that keep us separated from, and in conflict with, both our own needs and the needs of those we care for.  At its worse, we can suffer significant impairment in our capacity to care.

self care includes relational practices

self care includes relational practices

When love and joy are in short supply, it’s not just self-care we need to learn.  We need relational practices that help grow our capacity to face and move towards the very source of our stress. We need to practice transcending the fear and resistance that naturally resides in us when faced with conflict, so that everyone can benefit positively from the interaction.

This means retraining our nervous systems – on a neuromuscular level – to respond more skilfully to our caregiving challenges.

Acknowledging the relational aspect of self care also means  understanding that our beliefs, definitions and concepts of self care are shaped by a wider context of community and culture, and how, through bringing conscious awareness and embodied commitment to our self care practices, we are cultivating the necessary tools that support social movement and change that is consistent to what we deeply care about.


The SomaSmart Model includes teaching a powerful somatic anchoring technique that helps us remain a stable, protective and empathic presence for those we care for, even in the middle of crisis situation, and it uses partner practices inspired from Leadership Embodiment, a coaching model that helps us be a compassionate and skillful listener, an intentional and powerful advocator and an inspirational leader in the context of our families, work and communities.

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