Walk The Talk: Prioritizing Your Own Mental Health
Do you feel stressed? Overwhelmed? Worried about your business, patients, or family?
Do you prioritize your health as you encourage others to do? Do you set aside time to “walk the talk”?
For therapists, self-care is essential. When day after day is spent focusing on the stresses, anxieties, concerns, and challenges of patients it can take a toll. Without time to step away, boost calm, and rejuvenate your body, mind, and soul, the worries of the world — plus your personal concerns — can sap your energy, tax your health, and even lead to burnout and mental illness.
In fact, an article published in the peer-reviewed journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, discussed some confronting truths. Research suggests that the risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts appears to be greater in therapists than in the general population.
Then there’s burnout. As reported by the World Health Organization, this wearisome problem is, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy
Furthermore, a study published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy investigated burnout in psychologists. The authors found that “unrelenting standards and self-sacrifice” were early maladaptive schemas that are associated with the experience of high burnout. A staggering 47.9% of psychologists in this study rated in the medium or high range on the emotional exhaustion scale.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the article, Prevalence and Cause(s) of Burnout Among Applied Psychologists: A Systematic Review, found that burnout — particularly experienced in the form of emotional exhaustion — is a concern for health professionals who deliver psychological interventions.
Yet, reaching out for care is often avoided. Some of the reasons why therapists do not, themselves, seek care include a reported lack of time, concerns over confidentiality, denial that an issue exists, embarrassment, guilt, or shame, a lack of knowledge of available resources, inadequate social support, and apprehension over the potential loss of professional status. This might sound like the reasons patients give too, right?
But, as the authors of the above review note, “Perhaps a key to surmounting such barriers may be acknowledging the need for, and the regular use of, self-care strategies not unlike those recommended to clients or patients.” So, how can you prioritize self-care?
Practice what you preach
As the Prevalence and Causes article above said, “Many applied psychologists appear not to practice what they preach.”
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The first step then is to “walk the talk.” Use the expertise you already possess in a self-focused, compassionate way. Treat yourself as your most important patient. There are so many reasons to do so. First, because you deserve it. Second, because your family and patients will benefit from a happier, healthier you. And, third, I’ll say it again, because you deserve to be well.
Monitor your mental health and stress level
You likely know how to assess for mental illness and the factors that increase risk or indicate the beginning of a downward spiral. I imagine it’s part of your professional education and regular clinical practice. Apply these skills, this understanding, to monitor your own stress levels and emotional wellbeing. Use the tools you know work and continue to check in regularly. Be honest. Where issues are identified, take action.
Boost your resilience
The authors of the book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, investigated people who’d been through horrific trauma and (eventually) flourished. They found there are 10 key “resilience factors.” These include:
- confronting fear
- preserving optimism
- harnessing the power of social support
- embracing the practice of religion or spirituality
- prioritizing physical and psychological wellbeing
- adopting personal responsibility for emotional health
It’s important to understand and accept where you are at and then proactively raise your resilience.
Seek out and accept social support
You might have caught yourself time and again recommending that patients seek social support. Social support — as the book above found and you likely know — has been shown to protect against burnout and physical and mental illness.
Take this advice to heart. Reach out to loved ones. Engage the support of colleagues. Seek professional care from a trusted therapist. Know that work-based support is also important.
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Schedule regular downtime
There might be a million things running through your head and scheduled for your day. So, well in advance, block off time. Treat this time like you would an important doctor’s appointment: stick to it!
The purpose of scheduled downtime is solely to unwind. Do not break this appointment except in the case of a true emergency. See, there will always be an alternative that pops up; ways to fill this space and defer your self-appointment. But, that’s the point: you need to prioritize self-time.
What should you do in this space? Re-find and enjoy a passion. Read a book. Write a poem. Watch a movie or a documentary. Listen to a podcast. Play a game. Shop. Sleep. Get a massage, a pedicure, or a new hairstyle. Walk, gym, dance.
Still struggling for ideas? Ask yourself what is missing; what you’ve given up for the hustle and bustle of life. Start there.
Practice the art of gentleness
Remember; you are doing your best. Go easy on yourself. Instead of beating yourself up for perceived failures, acknowledge that mental illness and exhaustion can negatively skew your perspective. Focus on the good work you do and the valuable contribution you make.
Take long, slow breaths. Speak authentically and calmly. Assist others when you can, and offer a kind ‘no’ when you aren’t able, don’t wish to, or it isn’t in your best interests.
Youtoo deserve gentle, loving kindness. Extend this to yourself.
Maintain a planned structure
Creating a structure for your days, weeks, months, and years, allows you to consciously choose where to focus your time. To know what exactly is on your plate. To produce a schedule and insert commitments in a way that avoids becoming overextended, overwhelmed, or unwell.
We talk more about structure in our article, 5 Ways Mental Health Professionals Can Practice Self-Care.
As a therapist, you nurture the mental well-being of your patients; day in and day out. It’s important to extend yourself this courtesy, this wisdom.
As a health professional, you face a greater risk of burnout and mental illness than those in the general population. This means a focus on your well-being is crucial. You need to first serve yourself.
So, practice what you preach…
Monitor your mental health and stress level, boost your resilience, seek out and accept social support, schedule downtime, practice the art of gentleness, and maintain a planned structure.
Please, “Walk the talk” into a happier, healthier life. You deserve to be well.
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