A Silent But Mushrooming Problem

Mental health challenges across the country have risen during the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the CDC in June 2020, over 40% of adults were struggling with substance use or a mental health issue like depression, anxiety, trauma, or suicide ideation.

As a result, people are increasingly turning to mental health professionals for support. According to data released by the American Psychological Association, practically 1 in 3 psychologists say their practices have grown since the pandemic began.

Besides the influx of new patients, 44% of psychologists report a drop in cancellations and no-shows. This means that prospective patients are placed on months-long waitlists before they can be seen. What does this mean for your average psychologist? Being overworked, less effective, and an increased risk for burnout!

Is the situation hopeless? Only if therapists don’t know what to do about it!

How Therapists Can Escape Burnout

1. Boundaries

Sometimes burnout is a consequence of poor boundaries between the therapist and her clients. This may be especially true in the aftermath of the pandemic when many therapists are backed up for months, and find themselves giving up their lunch breaks and “down time” in order to pack more clients into their overcrowded schedules.

Most therapists imagine boundary-crossing as entering into a friendship or an inappropriate physical relationship with clients, but the truth is that the problem is more nuanced. Therapists need to set boundaries that distinguish between their personal and professional lives.

This means “stealing” away time from your clients and disconnecting from the stress of your work for the sake of meeting your needs. Denied this time off, you will inevitably begin to feel burned out, and this may lead you to resent your clients, which would compromise their care.

By becoming more mindful of work-life balance and implementing boundaries that reflect such awareness, you will help keep your “batteries charged,” simultaneously giving yourself time and space to grow both personally and as a therapist. You must learn to say “no” gently and with an authentic smile.

2. Endorphins

But perhaps your work doesn’t permit you to set healthy boundaries. If this is your lot, what can you do to avoid burnout?

You will need to invest yourself in releasing stress-relieving endorphins by exercising, listening to music, or being creative whenever possible. Scientists have found that regular involvement in these activities has been shown to decrease tension levels, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem.

When stress impacts the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the effects as well. In other words, if your body feels better, so will your mind. Exercise and the other aforementioned activities produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers, which in turn reduce stress.

3. Mindfulness

A growing body of research has shown multiple benefits of mindfulness, including helping smokers quit their habit, improving sleep quality, and even helping students score higher on standardized tests.

More recently, mindfulness has been associated with positive outcomes for physicians and their patients. Mindfulness, which is the cultivation of focused awareness on the present moment, has been shown to improve physicians’ performance by not only preventing burnout but also by enhancing their connection with their patients, according to a study conducted by Dr. Luke Fortney, M.D., of the Meriter Medical Group in Madison, Wisconsin.

Researchers found that, at nine months after the mindfulness training, the physicians were significantly less burnt out and exhibited lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, as compared with those who didn’t take the training course. Mindfulness training programs could be an effective way to help prevent burnout among therapists as well.

4. Self-Care

When it comes to self-care there are no rights or wrongs. Everyone is different, so what works for you may not work for someone else. What matters is to engage in an activity or routine that you find truly relaxing or refreshing, or provides you the sense that you have greater control over what’s bothering you.

Contrary to what many may believe, self-care isn’t a luxury but rather an essential for therapists to protect against burnout and help them to continue to give uncompromised care to their clients.

Enjoy your life and your work in a way that is sustainable. While everyone needs regular downtime and restoration, those in the helping professions may need it even more due to the nature of their work that often depletes them emotionally.

5. Social Support

In a systematic literature review to identify key factors that enable caregivers to cope, researchers found that those who had high levels of social support were better able to adjust and experience less distress in their caregiving journey.

What’s more, those caregivers who engaged in frequent, positive social interactions and had opportunities to share their experiences with others were more resilient than those who didn’t.

Along these same lines, caregivers who were happily married, received affection and felt cared for at home were better adjusted when working. This is key in preventing burnout.

It has also been shown that social support reduces side effects for caregivers who are already in the throes of burnout as well. For example, a recent study examined the well-being of over 1,000 physicians and nurses and found that social support mediated the impact of burnout on their overall health.

What works for caregivers such as physicians and nurses would also work for therapists.

Eliminate Language Detours

Above all, it is essential to be aware of and sensitive to your situation. Repeating the mantra for therapists to be “resilient” can be harmful, because this implies that clinicians should be able to shoulder overwhelming workloads or deliberately ignore symptoms of burnout.

“Language Detours” such as this either mask, dismiss or brush aside signs of compassion fatigue. Instead, it is critical to acknowledge your situation with all of its challenges so that you can adequately address it in ways that will provide you with encouragement, refreshment, and strength.

You are too valuable to succumb to burnout, so do whatever it takes to prevent it!