When your career is centred on caring for others, it can be all too easy to neglect your own wellbeing. But as the old adage goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
If you’re giving your all to other people day in, day out, it’s absolutely critical that you take the time to look after yourself, and safeguard your own precious mental health. This is particularly important for therapists, psychologists and counsellors, as it can be emotionally draining – and even damaging – to be party to someone’s else’s trauma and mental illness if you’re not protecting yourself sufficiently.
But if you’re not used to putting yourself first, how do you draw that line and commit to investing in yourself? And is it really that important?
The Impact of Caring for Others
When you work in a position of support for people experiencing distress, it’s common to suffer from burnout,emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and even secondary trauma. In fact, between 21% and 67% of mental health workers experience occupational burnout (Delgadillo et al., 2018).
And while all of these things can have an extremely negative impact on your own life, they can also affect the care you give to your clients. By maintaining your own strength of mind, you’re better placed to help others – and less likely to experience trauma, fatigue, burnout and exhaustion.
Secondary trauma – which is the result of hearing details about somebody else’s trauma, and helping them to recover from it – can be particularly damaging. If you have lasting psychological or emotional symptoms after supporting a client through trauma, you might need counselling, as well as a good self-care routine.
How to Care For Yourself
Working hard to uphold other people’s psychological wellness is extremely worthwhile and rewarding, but allowing yourself to heal through self-compassion and self-care is essential for protecting your own state of mind. However, a great many mental health professionals do struggle to find the time, or the finances, to invest in themselves.
So, what simple steps can you take to safeguard your mental health and wellbeing when working as a care professional?
• Practice good sleep hygiene: Because caring for others can be emotionally draining, you might need more rest than other professions. It might also be more difficult for you to switch off at night because of the things you’ve experienced during your working day, so give yourself the best chance of a peaceful night by reading something soothing before bed, listening to relaxing music, spritzing some pillow spray, meditating, or noting down in a journal anything that’s lingering on your mind.
• Use all of your holidays: You’re more likely to suffer from fatigue if you’re not taking regular breaks. It can be challenging to take time off when you know that other people are relying on you, but it is absolutely essential that you’re taking all of your annual leave – even if you don’t go anywhere. Time off is a chance for you to recharge and reconnect with yourself. If you work for yourself, be sure to factor in holidays like you would if you were employed.
• Nourish your body through diet and exercise: This is the same advice that you’d give to your clients. Why? Because you know that looking after your body has an enormously positive impact on your mind. You might be too busy to hit the gym every day of the week, but practising some gentle yoga stretches in the morning or before bed, and eating nutritious foods more often that you turn to takeout, will really help you to safeguard your wellbeing when you’re busy supporting others.
• Create healthy relationships: You spend a lot of time with people that need your help, and rely on your guidance – but what about people who are there to simply spend time with you? Connections are crucial for personal wellness, so don’t neglect relationships with friends and family, or cut yourself off from meeting new people, simply because you have a hectic caring schedule.
• Express yourself through hobbies: When your job revolves around helping clients to explore their inner selves, it can be easy to lose sight of yourself. So when you’re out of work-mode, turn your attention inwards. What do you enjoy? How can you express yourself? Get creative with art, writing, music, dance, theatre, or anything else that brings you joy.
• Explore Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT): CFT encourages mental and emotional healing through self-compassion, which is something that care professionals can really benefit from. CFT can help to strengthen your distress tolerance, which can prove helpful when you’re party to other people’s emotional and mental distress. Learn more about CFT.
As mental health professionals, we need to focus on our own mental resilience so that we can be at our best for our clients, and safeguard ourselves from secondary trauma and emotional exhaustion. And proactively looking after your own wellbeing is the very best way to protect yourself.