Being emotionally present without being overwhelmed


Spiritual care is an integral part of the healing process.

In hospitals and clinics, the focus of pastoral staff and outside clergy is on the patient, as it should be. However, where does this leave the healthcare provider who may also feel emotionally burdened by the suffering of a patient?

Medicine is a profession where practitioners grapple with life and death on a daily basis. In such an environment, spiritual self-care becomes critical.

The Dalai Lama says, “In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel burnout setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.”

This withdrawal and restoration is spiritual self-care. The essential practice of restoring the spirit and communing with a Higher Power spans millennia, cultures and religious traditions.

Victoria Schwartz is the Director of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dunwoody. As a church staff member, she is often called upon to offer pastoral care to church members. Her experience gives her a comprehensive perspective on how spiritual self-care is handled in the context of Christianity.

Schwartz says, “The Christian faith’s understanding of suffering is that we all suffer and we are all called to bear one another’s burdens in the sufferings of life. So in one sense all Christians are called to be caregivers.”

“[People] think that to be compassionate they must feel the other’s suffering. However, to be truly effective as a caregiver means to develop an emotional detachment which acknowledges a person’s pain without being overwhelmed by it themselves. I can pray for them and even feel sad for them, but if I get anxious or over-involved in their pain, I lose perspective and am not able to help them. I must stay outside of their suffering.”

Being emotionally useful while keeping a healthy attitude is not an easy task. Since 1975, Stephen Ministries has had unprecedented success in empowering laypeople to effectively provide spiritual care to people who are hurting. Across the U.S. and Canada, this program is used by over 12,000 congregations and organizations that span 170 different denominations.

Schwartz adds that Stephen Ministries is an excellent place for the caregiver to find the spiritual support they need in a confidential and comfortable environment.

There are also other support groups with specific purposes, many which cater to caregivers. They include Al-Anon and Alateen, adults caring for aging parents, Alzheimer’s respite groups and persons caring for family members with disabilities or mental illness. Medical professionals and laypersons alike can find support and spiritual encouragement in these groups.

Another means for spiritual restoration, prominent in many faiths, is the act of sequestering oneself away from the chaos of daily life. Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism are among the major religions that embrace asceticism to some extent.

Schwartz says, “When my children were young, and I needed a day of quiet, I would go to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers and just spend time on the grounds or in the chapel. The monks there were very good about being available if I needed them and leaving me alone if I didn’t.”

She adds, “When I can’t take a lot of time away, I find a chapel and sit in the quiet. Many churches have public chapels which are left open for private prayer and meditation. And some have prayer gardens which offer quiet in the midst of nature.”

Another solitary but very effective technique for spiritual centering is meditation. Again, this is a practice that is intrinsic to a number of religions and it takes many different forms.

For example, there is mandala meditation. Sanskrit for circle, mandalas are a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. The creation of the mandala, often with colored sand, is done in a meditative state and focuses on certain themes. The contemplation of the complete mandala is a way to focus inward. The dismantling of the completed mandala is a reminder of the transient nature of the world.

Walking a labyrinth is another meditative spiritual tool. It is often symbolic of the journey to the center of oneself and is used by many as a way to learn about the spiritual path.

Schwartz says that many churches offer other meditative services such as Taizé. Taizé is a style of Christian worship that often incorporates simple harmonies sung in different languages. Singing is interspersed with reading, silence and prayer.

“I find music, such as Taizé, very healing when I am under stress,” says Schwartz.

Prayer is another spiritual discipline that can be performed collectively or individually on behalf of oneself or on behalf of others.

Schwartz says, “We can pray for strength and guidance, and we commend those we care for to the comfort and care of God also. Our faith gives us hope and the confidence that God is with us, which helps us be at peace in the middle of a stressful situation.”

In addition to prayer, Schwartz says touch is vitally important. “Touching the hand of a patient or holding both their hands in yours makes a connection between the caregiver and patient and can be very calming to both.”

When you find yourself in need of spiritual restoration, the techniques are simple and can be tailored to suit individual beliefs and faith traditions. Create or seek out a space where you feel safe to encounter your Higher Power. Seek the support of others with similar concerns and carve out some alone time for focusing inward through meditation or prayer.