Beautiful Between

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The Soul of the Helper Q&A with Dr. Holly Oxhandler

Dr. Holly Oxhandler has been one of the greatest surprises and delights of my work in the faith and mental health space. When we were connected by a mutual friend, I had no idea how much I would come to cherish Holly’s wisdom, tenderness, and ability to hold space for the pain of others. We’ve laughed and wept and grieved together over the past few years, so it is my great joy to share her words with you today.

You might know Holly from the CXMH Podcast, but she does much more than that. She’s a researcher, social worker, and helps train the next generation of mental health professionals at Baylor University. She’s also the author of the brand-new book The Soul of the Helper, which I had the great honor of endorsing. 

One final note: While Dr. Holly Oxhandler is a Christian, her research spans across faith traditions and her book is published by a secular publisher. As such, you’ll notice that at times, she borrows language from other religions to communicate key concepts in her research. 

While some of the language may be different than what we’re used to, Holly has so much wisdom for all of us. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work, why she researches faith and mental health, and how we should all be taking better care of ourselves. If you’re a helper in any way — professionally, as a parent, or even just as a friend — this interview is for you.

Tell us a little about your personal story and how that made you want to write this book. 

Over the last 13 years, I’ve studied the intersection of spirituality and mental health within social work and related disciplines. But before becoming a researcher, I describe how this intersection has been part of my personal life in The Soul of the Helper. For example, layers of my own journey with mental health struggles (which, some research shows over 80% of us will experience at some point in our lives) included experiences with depression, anxiety, and trauma. Alongside these, my spirituality has been an essential part of my identity and ways of coping with these struggles.

In 2017, while studying one essential group of helpers – mental health care providers – I noticed a pattern in my data. The more motivated mental health care providers were to live out their faith (whatever they believed), the more likely they were to consider their clients’ spirituality. This is important because research has shown us that when clients’ religion or spirituality is ethically considered in mental health care, the treatment is as or more effective as compared to when this area of clients’ lives is avoided. 

The result of noticing this pattern included publishing a grounded theory called Namaste Theory, based on my humble understanding of the Sanskrit term, namaste. Although the literal translation means “I bow to you,” it’s often generally interpreted to mean “the Sacred within me honors the Sacred within you.” Or, as the mental health care providers more deeply recognize the Sacred within themselves, they tend to recognize the Sacred within their clients and consider this area of clients’ lives in treatment. 

Over time, I realized this theory isn’t just for mental health care providers, but for helpers in general. As helpers see and serve the Sacred within themselves, they’re more likely to see and serve the Sacred within others. This includes paying close attention to the intersection of spirituality and mental health within our own lives so we can humbly hold that space for others from a place of sacred groundedness. As I curiously lived into this theory within my own life, as well as continued to talk with other helpers about it, I reached a point at which I could no longer not write this book with a hope to make it more accessible for everyday helpers. 

How do you define helpers? 

When I talk about helpers in this book, I’m referring to anyone serving others in some capacity, whether in a professional setting or not. This includes parents, partners, loved ones, friends, teachers, health and mental health care providers, faith leaders, advocates, community organizers, first responders, administrators, managers, authors, researchers, creatives, caregivers, and more. Nearly all of us may be considered a helper when it comes to the tapestry of ways we serve others.

Why are there such alarming rates of burnout among helpers and caregivers? And how does this impact our mental health?

We think of occupational hazards in many different careers and industries, but I don’t know that we always consider the occupational hazards of being a helper. Crippling levels of stress, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma are each potential hazards for those who continuously serve others. Prior to 2020, we were already seeing high rates of burnout among physicians, parents, teachers, and mental health care providers. However, the onset of a global pandemic required these and other helpers to quickly adapt in the ways they cared for others as they simultaneously tried to navigate their own emotions, fears, and grief through the individual and collective trauma during the last couple of years. 

Like our physical health, our mental health is on a spectrum that can range from severe illness to flourishing. In fact, while NAMI reports that 1 in 5 of us are currently struggling with a mental health condition, over the course of the last two years, about 40% of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. It’s important to name these mental health struggles we’ve faced throughout the pandemic, especially among helpers who have been at the front lines serving others. Given that helpers and caregivers have continued to meet others’ needs to the best of their ability, while simultaneously coping with their own struggles and needs (or often setting them aside completely), it’s critical that our helpers tend to their inner landscape to heal from the overwhelming stress, compassion fatigue, and various forms of trauma they’ve faced.

You describe a journey of seeking the Sacred that helps combat that burnout. What are some of the stages you include in this book and why are they important for helpers to consider?

This journey of seeking the Sacred surfaced as I began to live into this research around Namaste Theory, humbly recognizing that we must see and honor the Sacred within ourselves so that we can see and honor the Sacred in those we serve. It’s a non-linear journey that supports helpers to serve from a place of abundance and discernment of what is truly theirs to do, rather than from a place of hustling for their worth – which can absolutely set us on a path toward burnout.

The stages (capitalized in the sentences ahead) invite helpers to wake up to the SPEED at which they’ve been operating for so long as they’ve served others, to SLOW down and identify the supports that help STEADY their whole being. From that slower pace, helpers are then invited into a practice of being STILL so that they can truly SEE the Sacred within themselves. And from that place of deeply knowing they are Beloved, helpers can then SHIFT with wholehearted compassion to SERVE the Sacred within themselves and those around them through the unique divine spark within them.

Why is our spirituality so important for our mental and emotional wellbeing? 

This is one of my favorite questions and at the very heart of my research! We’ve seen from studies across health and mental health fields that when our spirituality is ethically integrated into mental health treatment, clients often get better faster than if it was ignored. 

Plus, most mental health clients view these areas of their lives as relevant to one another (source). With over 80% of US adults considering themselves to be spiritual and over 80% of us likely to meet criteria for a diagnosable mental illness at some point in our lives, these areas are inextricably connected with one another and need to be considered together. And both areas of our lives are complex and can influence the other. For example, for some, leaning on their religion or spirituality may be a source of support or help them cope through mental health struggles and difficulties in life. In fact, over 93% of US adults report that practicing their religion helps them gain comfort in times of trouble or sorrow.  At the same time, many report experiences related to their faith that are laced with trauma and pain, which also needs to be considered in mental health treatment. We are complex beings, and our spirituality and mental health are worth paying attention to as we serve others. 

What is one practice helpers can implement right now to start taking better care of themselves?

Recognizing that each of us are unique with diverse needs, abilities, responsibilities, resources, surrounding systems of care, and more, I’ll elevate the practice of deep breathing with the focus of slowing down and tuning into our inner landscape. When it comes to deep breathing, I recommend breathing in through our nose to a count of four, filling our belly with air (also known as diaphragmatic breathing), and slowly breathing out through our mouths as if we’re blowing on hot soup to a count of six. Don’t hold your breath at either the inhale or exhale, which can cause tension in your muscles, but focus on the breath and allow the air to move in and out of your body.

As you breathe, pay attention to what thoughts, emotions, and sensations you notice. Get curious about them. Does your body feel exhausted? Is your mind chattering with to dos and what ifs? Does your heart feel heavy from grief or sadness? Take a moment to honor what’s happening within, be with it (to the best of your ability), and allow it to guide you in the next step you can take to care for you. Perhaps that includes giving yourself some extra sleep, getting the to dos onto a list so you’re not carrying them within you, or taking a step toward finding a local mental health care provider to support you through a difficult season. 

The Soul of the Helper is packed with a variety of resources and practices to support caring for you well as you serve others. The ability to breathe deep in this moment, tune in to your inner landscape, and get curious about what you need is simply one of those. Regardless of the infinite ways you decide to mindfully care for you in this moment, fellow helper, my hope is that you recognize that you are worth the love and care you extend to so many others.

Pick up a copy of The Soul of the Helper wherever you buy books or receive a 40% discount through Templeton Press using the code: PRESS40OFF. Be sure to also access your free copy of the Companion Guide that pairs with this book and includes playlists, a facilitator guide, recommended reading, and more!

Holly K. Oxhandler, PhD, LMSW is the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. She’s the author of The Soul of the Helper, studies the intersection of spirituality and mental health, and hosts CXMH, a podcast on faith and mental health. You can learn more about Dr. Oxhandler’s work by visiting her website, checking out her newsletter, or following her @hollyoxhandler on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

One Reply

  1. Michael

    God is good all the time he’ll never leave you or forsake you it’s a jealous God he loves you no matter what even love everyday

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