Self-care Is Not Just For Our Clients
Once, a counselor told me: “counselors are great at telling our clients to practice self-care but bad at practicing it ourselves.” I have found that to be very true. Earlier in the week, after sessions full of encouraging clients that they should prepare but not panic about COVID-19, I found myself having difficulty sitting mindfully in the unknown.
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent.
Caring for myself is an act of survival.”— Audre Lorde
Why Mental Health Professionals Need To Practice Self-Care
Professionals should know that self-care is not just spa days and vacations. True self care that we can practice on a daily basis does not cost anything. Just because we don’t have the budget to get a massage every month (although I find it helps a lot if I do!) it does not mean we cannot practice self-care.
Self-care is taking an active role in our own good health and mental well being. This is important on a daily basis but especially during times of physical illness or stress.
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” — Maya Angelou
Practice What You Teach
Working with people at difficult times in their lives can be extremely stressful. Stress is often called “the silent killer” because it contributes to many underlying health conditions that can go unnoticed. Stress is often what leads us to overeat, under exercise, zone out as a way of relaxing, and mentally check out of our personal lives in a way that can become unhealthy. It can lead to heart disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, GI problems, and many other chronic health concerns. One of the best ways to combat stress is to practice self-care.
Daily self-care involves taking care of our physical and mental needs in a loving way. It means putting ourselves first in a way that many counselors and therapists may find difficult at first.
Some people, often women, feel that taking care of themselves is selfish. This could not be further from the truth! We can’t take care of others if we are not first healthy ourselves.
Daily Self-Care Includes Things Like:
Eating and Choosing Healthy Foods
I have seen many a therapist grab something full of sugar because they have run over on their sessions and don’t have time to eat lunch. Some people will go all day without eating which puts physical stress on the body! We might encourage clients to eat healthy but then drive through a fast food restaurant on the way home because we are too exhausted to cook. We might pack a lunch for our children but not for ourselves. If the office break room is filled with donuts and cookies, it’s too easy to relieve your stress by snacking on sweets after a tough session. Overeating can be another response to stress that leads to us feeling bad both physically and mentally.
Self-care involving food means making time to eat and preparing healthy meals for ourselves. Some people prefer to meal prep for the week while others might prefer buying healthy frozen meals that fit better with their schedule. Whatever works best for you, eating a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low in sugar is a form of self-care.
Moving Your Body
Experts agree that our modern lives are not good for our bodies. Working as a counselor or therapist often means sitting for 8+ hours a day at work, plus commute time. We might crash and watch Netflix at the end of the day because we are exhausted. Lack of movement is leading to many of our health problems. Even people who regularly exercise are likely more sedentary than is ideal!
Not everyone likes exercise. Maybe you love going to the gym five times a week or going out for a run every morning, if so – that’s great! If you don’t like exercise or just the idea of exercise seems intimidating replace it with the idea of moving. Do you love to dance to music in your living room? Do it! Does your dog enjoy walks? Take him out for a long walk a couple times a week. If you have an Apple watch or Fitbit you can set it to remind you to stand up and walk around once every hour. Instead of sitting at your desk between sessions, get up and move or stretch. Small changes can make a big difference. Mental health professionals need to remember that symptoms of burnout can be difficult to spot before they become severe.
Do you allow your clients to text you after hours? Are you on call 24/7 rather than paying for an answering service? Do you bill your clients for after hours calls? Have you found that it’s difficult to respect your boundaries around time so you are constantly running behind? Is your specialty a type of therapy or client that requires a lot of emotional energy such as trauma counseling or Borderline Personality Disorder?
If you are not respecting boundaries around your time and energy, you are not practicing good self-care. We also have demands on our time away from work with children’s activities, professional associations, boards we may serve on, church, and more. Saying “no” to the activities you truly do not want to do, but feel obligated to, is self-care in itself. It also gives you precious time to focus on an activity you truly enjoy. If you hate taking notes say “no” to serving as secretary of a professional organization. If you genuinely love helping at your child’s school that is a much better task to agree to. Figure out how much time you have and say yes only to thinks you truly want to do. Sound impossible? Tiny Buddha has some great tips on how to stop saying yes.
Researchers focusing on practitioner burnout for a 2012 journal article found that as many as 2 out of every 3 mental health workers “may be experiencing high levels of burnout.” Inability to say “no” at work or in other areas of our lives may contribute to burn out.
Doing At Least One Thing You Enjoy Every Day
Does this sound unrealistic? Then you need to make a change. Time is our greatest resource and once it is gone we never get it back. If all of your time is spent working, running errands, cleaning up, taking care of family/kids, and sleeping, where is the room for joy? We are made for more than just completing all the tasks on our to-do list.
It might be watching a television program you enjoy, taking a long bath, listening to your favorite music, but if you can’t find just 30 minutes a day to do something for yourself that is a sign that you’re not practicing self-care.
These are just a few ways that you can begin to make self-care a bigger priority in your life.
You Deserve The Same Energy You Give To Others
It may be counter-intuitive that a time of so much uncertainty is the most important time to practice better self-care. However, when you are out of your routine – working from home, the kids not in school, self-quarantined, it is actually the perfect time to disrupt the status quo by doing something different. The time and energy that you give others is important, but just as important is giving that same time and energy to yourself. We are trying to prevent getting sick, and taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do to prevent illness.
What are some ways that you practice self-care?
Please share in the comments below!
A version of this post for clients and patients is available on the Inspired Happiness Blog.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, Including you.”
– Anne Lamott
Stacey Aldridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice in the Jackson, MS area. She practices self-care by meal prepping every Sunday, spending time with her dogs, and playing the game “Gardenscapes” on her phone. If you are interested in learning more about Stacey’s practice please visit her website.