In the project

Online seminar for volunteering at Europe's (external) borders


8. Selfcare

Self-care and team-care are important components of sustainable activism and voluntary work. We have collected some information and tips that can help you to pay more attention to your own well-being during your work as a volunteer (and also in your everyday life). We have collected some information and tips that can help you to pay more attention to your own well-being during your work as a volunteer (and also in your everyday life).

stress factors & manifestations of stress

Stress factors in humanitarian and support work

Stress is a subjective experience. Stress triggers can be different, both major events and the coming together of many small factors can trigger stress.

Possible stress factors in humanitarian and support work are for example:

  • A chaotic work environment
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Short deadlines and stressed team members
  • Communication difficulties
  • Too little time for preparation and briefings
  • Tasks outside the own area of competence
  • Dealing with moral and ethical dilemmas
  • Isolation from your family and social support network
  • Chronic lack of sleep
  • Cramped living conditions
The duration of the stressful situation, organisational factors (such as team relationships), previous psychological vulnerabilities and a lack of social support can foster strong stress reactions.

stress factors and manifestations

Stress manifests itself differently with each person. A first step to a healthy approach towards stress is to recognise your own signs of stress.

Here are some examples of how stress can manifest itself:

  • Emotional: mood swings, strong emotionality, irritability, restlessness, depression, anger, emotional numbness
  • Mental: Poor concentration, confused and disorganized thoughts, forgetfulness, decision difficulties, dreams or nightmares
  • Physically: sleeping disorders, altered appetite, abdominal pain, palpitations, fatigue, muscle tension, back and neck pain, headaches, inability to rest, jitteriness
  • Behavior: Risk taking (e.g. reckless driving), over- or malnutrition, increased smoking, listlessness, hyperactivity, aggression, alcohol consumption to switch off
  • Spiritual: feeling of emptiness, feeling of senselessness, discouragement and hopelessness, cynicism, doubt, anger at God, alienation and loss of the feeling of connectedness

Source: McKay, Lisa (2007): Understanding and Coping with traumatic stress. Online training module one. Headington Institute.

Self-care tips

What are important elements of self-care? What should I pay attention to?
Every person perceives stress differently and needs different strategies to deal with stress. When we are stressed, we usually first give up the things that give us the most energy and are good for us, such as time for good food, sports, time with friends.

These following points can be central to your self-care:
Meet your basic needs: Eat, drink, sleep and exercise

Make sure you eat healthy and regular meals and drink enough water.
Try to get as much sleep as you need.
Exercise is one of the most effective strategies for dealing with stress: It reduces stress, improves your mood and sleep, reduces worries and helps you to feel good in your own body. For example, volunteers in Thessaloniki (Northern Greece) regularly played football together or joined a gym.
Laughter and joy

Joy works as a kind of antidote to burnout and gives us energy. Laughter contributes significantly to our joy. Even in depressing situations it is allowed and usually even helpful to laugh together.

Hobbies, rest and relaxation as well as time in nature can help us to actively switch off from work. Joint trips (for instance on sundays) can also be a great opportunity to get a break.
Family & Friends

Do not process your experiences alone. Conversations with friends (which you will also make locally in the project) can help you to feel less alone and powerless and instead connected and supported.

Who do you feel connected to? Who can you talk to about how you feel about your work and experiences? When?

Stick to clear working hours and make sure you have a proper end of work. Try to schedule some time for self-care, sport and rest.

What do you want to pay special attention to in your daily and weekly planning? When do you get off work and what do you do then?
Relaxation techniques & mindfulness

Mindfulness exercises, meditations or various holistic sports such as yoga, taiji or martial arts can help you relax. At the same time they help you to get better access to your feelings and your well-being.

Our advice: Guided meditation can be easier in the beginning! TheRefugee Trauma Initiative offers resources to help you to relax, including meditation guides, healing practitioner exercises, and music playlists. There are also many meditation apps that you can try out.
Leave for long-term volunteers

We recommend that long-term volunteers take a week's holiday every 8 weeks. It is best not to spend the holiday in the volunteer apartment in order to get enough distance from work.
Reflect your own well-being and motivation

Working in support work with people on the move can change people. Working in support work with people on the move can change people. Trying to understand and express these changes is an important way of processing the experience. Especially writing and sharing your thoughts with other volunteers or your loved ones can help to process them.

If you feel that your energy level and motivation is decreasing over time, consider why you are currently volunteering and whether this is still what you want to do. If you do not find new motivation, consider the option of leaving the project.
Our advice:

  • Take time for yourself and make sure you get enough sleep and rest.
  • Keep in touch with friends and family outside of work.
  • Exercise regularly and do things you enjoy.
  • Make sure you have a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Take time to reflect on how you are feeling.
  • If you need help, don't hesitate to ask for it! Contact your coordinators or other team members for help.

Further readings, helpful organisations and book tips

  • Indigo Volunteers have compiled a list of many Psycho-Social Support (PSS) resources (EN) fthat are available to aid workers, activists and volunteers free of charge.You can contact the organisation or individual directly if you're interested.
  • Psychologists 4 Future (DE) offer many valuable insights into topics such asresilience, self-care, mindfulness, coaching and dealing with conflicts. Thematically, the documents focus particularly on dealing with the climate crisis, but they can also be applied very well to our working context! The documents are in German though.
  • You need a break? Here you can do a retreat for committed people on a donation basis
  • Out of Action– "Emotional First Aid" groups after traumatic experiences in engagement
  • Handbuch Nachhaltiger Aktivismus (DE) from Timo Luthmann
  • The Idealist's Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout (EN) from Alessandra Pigni

Why self-care can be difficult as a

volunteer and activist

Looking after your own wellbeing is not always easy. Especially as volunteers and activists, various circumstances can cause us to put our needs on the back burner. We have collected some important factors here that can make it difficult to look after yourself:
Is it selfish to take care of myself?

We work in states of emergency and with people that partly have to live in inhuman conditions. In this work environment, it can quickly feel selfish to think about our own needs and mental health. Compared to the circumstances in which the people we work with have to live, we have many privileges and have chosen to be on site voluntarily.

Many volunteers and activists feel ashamed when they are not well in this work context and feel that their own feelings are unimportant. Thoughts like "How can I feel bad when I'm so privileged?" can come up.

Our advice: Most of the time the shame about our own limits or thoughts gets smaller when we talk to other people about it. It is notselfish to care about your own well-being - it is necessary. In order to put a lot of energy into our work, it is necessary to perceive and accept your own limits. Our feelings show us very clearly when we exceed our limits (e.g. through exhaustion, irritability, restlessness).
Feeling the weight of the world on yout shoulders and not being able to take breaks

Contributing to social change is a marathon, not a sprint. It is not sustainable to relentlessly push ourselves or our environment in the face of the world's problems. Sometimes it can be difficult to take breaks and to enjoy moments of joy while working as a volunteer. As individuals we can only do our best, but no one can change the world alone. Therefore it is important that you reflect and accept your own limits.

Our advice:
  • Healthy humility: Try not to take yourself and your efficacy too seriously.
  • Setting boundaries: Purposely take breaks from work instead of just concentrating on work and constantly dealing with negative content.
Little time and lots to do: Idealism and high expectations

  • For various reasons volunteers and activists usually only have a limited period of time, from a few weeks to a few months, to support projects at Europe’s external borders. As a result, many people might experience thepressure to do as much "good" as possible in this short time. The time as a volunteer can be perceived as the chance to finally stand up against the immense human rights violations at Europe's external borders, practice solidarity and support people on the move. This can be a good feeling, provide a sense of purpose and connect us with like-minded people.
  • Strong idealism and the urge to do as much as possible in a short period of time can also lead to you setting yourself unrealistically high goals that can never be achieved by you or your project. It can be frustrating to realize that even on the ground we have limited opportunities and that despite successful projects the big picture of the ongoing inhuman treatment of people on the move remains unchanged. In addition, disappointment can arise from the fact that a lot of energy is also invested in internal processes (and power struggles) in non-governmental organisations and activist groups. Despite these disappointments and doubts, the work continues at a fast pace and it is possible that this disillusionment will create frustration, anger, helplessness and cynicism in you.
  • Realistic expectations of yourself, your work and the project you are involved in are central parts to a healthy work culture. It is important to accept that we cannot change the situation in a few months and at the same time continue to find meaning in the work and in the projects.
Our advice: Reflect your own motivation and expectations
  • What is your motivation as a volunteer/activist? What do you want to achieve?
  • Does the work give you something that you don't get in your everyday life?
  • What is the purpose of your work?
  • What can be a realistic goal for you and your work?
Personal factors: perfectionism, helper syndrome, not being able to say "no"

Your personality plays an important role in the perception and development of stress and how you deal with it.lle. These include, for example, your inner drivers, i.e. internalised beliefs such as:"Be strong! Be perfect! Always please others! Hurry up! Make an effort!
These beliefs are about connecting your own self-esteem and the recognition of other people with certain actions. Here are some examples:

  • Helper syndrome means that you may unconsciously feel that you are particularly valued in relationships when you help other people. It is easy to overlook or underestimate your own limits and to lose sight of whether the help is needed or useful at that moment.
  • Perfectionist people may have internalized unconscious beliefs such as "only very good is good enough". They tend to set themselves unrealistically high goals.
  • Many people find it difficult to say "no"because they fear, for example, that it might offend other people. They may find it easier to subordinate their own goals to those of others.
Our advice: Reflect which inner drivers influence your behaviour. This can help you to find suitable "permission sentences'' for you, for example: "I am allowed to take my time and also take breaks." You can find different inner driver tests online.
Unhealthy team dynamics

  • In some projects, it can be observed that breaks and self-care are frowned upon and long working hours are the norm. This can create pressure to dive into work in the same way and lead to questions such as: "Am I letting my team down if I allow myself time for myself while everyone else is working overtime? Is there such a thing as fixed working hours at all? How can I relax when everyone else is stressed and overworked?"
  • The group culture and mood in the project can have a strong impact on us and bad morale or stress can spread quickly Be aware that every team member can actively shape the work culture and team dynamics. This also means that you can create supportive and respectful work structures as a team.
    More on Team-care here


It is not possible to solve structural problems through self-care. Self-care should not mean that your well-being is your sole responsibility. Instead, it should mean creating a working atmosphere and togetherness within the team where everyone feels comfortable and the boundaries of individual members are respected. Team care or collective care can mean creating shared spaces of exchange and finding long-term solutions for better working (and living) together as a community with similar experiences. Whether for a short or long period of time, as volunteers we help shape the work culture of our organization. Only if we support each other in our team and value our work can we work well together in the long term.

Team-care in the context of support-work can have many facets:

  • Establish a supportive work environmentwhere work is valued. Say thank you!
  • Get to know each other and do something together in your free time, this can have a positive effect on the cooperation and well-being in the team.
  • Create shared spaces for exchange and reflection about the group and work culture and try to find common solutions to establish better support structures within the team.
  • Take time together as a team to reflect on your experiences.
    As a suggestion you can use this Focus Group Concept (EN), which has already been implemented several times in a non-governmental organization in Northern Greece .
  • Take time as a team once a month to reflect together:
    Are the responsibilities of the team clearly defined? Do the work processes work? Does our communication work? Are we satisfied with the team and our cooperation?
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Klar Malte (2019b): Die 20 Säulen der Selbstfürsorge. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Luthmann, Timo (2019): Politisch aktiv sein und bleiben. Handbuch Nachhaltiger Aktivismus. 2. Auflage. UNRAST-Verlag: Münster.

McKay, Lisa (2007): Understanding and Coping with traumatic stress. Online training module one. Headington Institute.

Pigni, Alessandra (2016): The Idealist's Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout. Parallax Press: Berkeley.

Psychologists for Future (2020): Unterstützung für Engagierte.CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Rise and Revolt (2021): Warum wir collective Care statt Self care brauchen.
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