Why Volunteering is Good for You

Volunteering is about helping others. So far so obvious. But what do you gain as a volunteer?

Firstly, seeing the difference you can make to an individual’s life gives you a fantastic sense of self-worth. Can you pass on a skill you have, help with a project or simply be there to listen to someone who is often unheard?

Volunteering can help alleviate depression. One of the best ways to begin to feel better is to take yourself “out of your own head”. What better way to do this than to be engrossed in someone else’s world? You are engaged with them instead of ruminating on your own destructive internal dialogue. The neurotransmitter, dopamine is linked to self-esteem. Achieve something meaningful in your volunteer role (and it’s hard not to!) and your levels will increase. Some anti-depressants are designed to increase the brain’s serotonin levels but if you are out and about doing things, your serotonin levels will increase naturally.

Volunteering relieves stress. Seeing the difficulties others face can often put our own problems into perspective. Helping others to cope makes you better at developing your own coping strategies. Oxytocin is a hormone that helps us feel a connection with others. Helping others has been shown to increase oxytocin levels, making us feel more contented.

It’s a great way to become part of the community, particularly if you are shy or anxious. You don’t need to sit around in a group, self-consciously wondering what you are going to say to people. It’s “not about you” so you can just get “stuck in” and let relationships form naturally. And they will!

So it’s great to be a volunteer but here’s a health warning. Do think about why you are doing it. Often the best volunteers are people who have been through tough life experiences themselves. The “wounded healer” can help in a way that those who have sailed through life are unable to. I once worked with a client who had lost his wife of many years. When I first met him, he was working most of his time, for three charities, two of them helping bereaved people cope with their loss. His wife had died two years before he came to me. By the time I saw him, he was desperate and empty. He had been projecting his own need for healing onto others. He was doing great work with them but his own pain was being ignored. When we are used to helping others, we find it difficult to ask for help ourselves but healing our own wounds makes us healthier, more contented people. And this means we can help others authentically.

To be clear if you have deep, unresolved issues, find help for yourself first. There are some fantastic volunteers around here who can help you if you are feeling sad, lonely or desperate. And you now know that in letting them help you, you are helping them in so many ways.

Otherwise, think about how volunteering can help you. Give it a go. I promise you, it’ll be one of the best decisions you ever make.

Steve Neesam, Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist at Together Therapy, Eastbourne

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