How Giving to Others Feeds Our Own Self-Care

© Viacheslav Iakobchuk –

For our final post in this 12-part self-care series designed to keep you on the list of important things to do, we’re looking at how helping others helps us as well.

When we’re feeling troubled we think we have nothing to give, but then we discover that by giving we feel better. Research has shown that helping others actually produces positive changes in the brain (here are three specific ways).

How to give is a very personal choice. When you’re struggling with your own problems, your first instinct can be to isolate yourself from others. Isolation can be very lonely and depressing, or even life threatening if the depression increases.

There is a big difference between isolating and choosing to spend time alone. It’s important to our emotional health to be okay with being alone sometimes – without feeling the need to use unhealthy food behaviors to quiet the mind or stuff down uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Introverted people, for example, can feel very drained by crowded, busy events or intense interactions with others. They need time alone to “recharge their batteries.”

When being alone becomes maladaptive rather than replenishing, however, it’s important to take steps towards having more social contact and support, and giving to others can help you feel like part of the world again – or maybe for the first time.

The people you meet through doing service already have some common ground with you – a mutual interest or passion, a similar struggle, or some other bond. By focusing your attention outside of yourself and your own problems, you join a community of people working on the same goal.

You can stay behind the scenes, donating your time to keep events or meetings running smoothly. Without volunteers, many of these things would never happen. Yes, many of these causes need money as well, but by giving your time you also give to yourself.

You could take on regular service on a committee or for an event, or do an occasional shift at a food bank or soup kitchen. You can also bring the spirit of service into every day with random acts of kindness such as holding doors open for people, greeting someone with a warm smile, buying a coffee for the person behind you at the drive-through window, or picking up trash in your neighborhood.

In therapy groups or self-help programs, we help by talking about what we’re doing to recover and the positive changes and results we’ve seen, as a beacon of hope for people who aren’t as far along on their journey.

Giving can have a downside, if we say yes to too many things and start to resent our commitments. It’s important to maintain that balance of peaceful alone time and time with others. If giving to others ever gets in the way of your own essential recovery actions, it’s important to shift things immediately so your self-care always stays on the list (here are six ways to make sure you’re not depleting yourself through giving to others).

This post was adapted from a series of earlier posts from the White Picket Fence Counseling Center blog.

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