Counselors are on the front line of mental health care, providing invaluable advice, support and assistance to people struggling with illnesses, complex emotions and other debilitating life conditions. However, the focus on always providing help and emotional support to others can be very demanding, so it’s vital counselors also practice their own self-care and healing.
As a counselor or someone with an interest in psychology and philosophy, you are probably aware of the importance of mental health. A positive and relaxed mindset is key to happiness and wellbeing. It will make you more productive, boost your morale and self-esteem, improve your personal relationships and enable you to make important decisions without stress, anxiety and worry.
In contrast, if you are exhausted or burnt out at work, as a counselor you may struggle to relate to others and impart the best possible advice. You may also become overwhelmed by the heightened emotional states of your clients and find it difficult to work through problems and think critically. While self-care won’t solve everything, it will give you a platform to remain healthy and productive at work and at home.
Prioritizing mental and physical wellness
Counseling professor Stephanie Burns categorizes all aspects of mental and physical health as wellness and believes it’s a crucial aspect of being a healthy counselor. She admits this can be difficult when the profession is not a two-way street as clients are there to receive support, so finding another way to “receive things back” should be a priority for busy workers. She adds: “Otherwise, you end up depleting yourself and you don’t have anything more to give.”
The best way to incorporate self-care into your life as a counselor is through daily routines and habitual behavior. Self-care isn’t always grand gestures and extensive activities. It can simply be taking a five-minute break at the right time during the morning or afternoon to gather your thoughts and process what has happened before returning to work. These small moments can really make a difference when trying to combat burnout.
It’s best to begin with the basics before moving forward, so make sure you have the classic trio of sleep, diet and exercise locked down. That means getting at least seven hours of sleep at night so you can function to the best of your abilities at work, eating nutritious foods that give you energy throughout the day and exercising for at least 30 minutes a day four times a week. It can be tempting to rely on caffeine in counseling and healthcare roles but try not to drink too much or eat sugary foods to perk yourself up as you could crash later.
Simply saying these things is easy, putting them into practice can be more difficult. Making healthy foods the night before, such as soaked oats with fruits for breakfast and a packed lunch with vegetables as a part of your daily routine, is a good place to start. You can also set aside an hour before or after work for exercise, such as a run or jog outside or a session at the gym. These habits will eventually become ingrained and second nature, which will improve your physical and mental fitness.
Next, you can start practicing mindfulness by giving yourself the space and time to reflect and think about your own feelings. UKCP psychotherapist Marybeth Haas says it’s vital that counselors prioritize mindfulness even when they are feeling rushed, as simply the act of taking a moment to gather yourself can do wonders for stress levels. She also advises being kind to yourself and reaching out for help from your support system, which may include colleagues, friends and family, when you need it.
To incorporate mindfulness into your daily routines, you could set aside a 15-minute period each day when you go outside for a walk to connect with nature and allocate a time each week when you call a close friend or loved one for a chat. It’s important to retain your enthusiasm for things outside of work too. Are there any new hobbies you could adopt or interests you could cultivate? Being passionate about something will help to balance your work commitments.
Another important aspect of self-care is prioritizing professional development. Thinking bigger and planning positive steps you can take in your career will help to prevent you from getting bogged down with the minutiae of day-to-day work tasks. If you have a five-year plan to continue learning and earn additional accreditations, for example, you will always have a goal or objective to focus your efforts on.
Considering professional development
Specializing in a specific area of work is an excellent way to boost your employability and pay rate. A CACREP-accredited counselling program in school counseling or mental health will allow you to tailor your skillset and experience to the unique challenges people are facing in different environments. Institutions, such as Walsh University, offer many degree-level programs that allow you to pursue academic advancement without leaving your current job, as you can study online and you don’t need to visit the campus.
Focusing on your career is an excellent outlet for mindfulness, as it will enable you to switch off from the demands of your clients and start thinking about how you want your professional life to develop and progress. Haas says the curiosity involved in learning new things is key to maintaining a passion for counseling. It also nurtures creativity, which again can mitigate the risks of being overworked and unmotivated.
Mindfulness can also take the form of letting go and being comfortable with the notion that you are not going to know everything and solve every one of your client’s issues. While counselors always strive to use evidence-based practice during sessions, there will be times when the correct advice or solution isn’t apparent. Experts say releasing yourself from the pressure of being perfect is key to self-care.
Participating in spiritual activities
Being at ease with yourself is part of the spiritual activities you can undertake during the day. Self-reflection at work or at home is key, as is taking the time to savor the small moments during the day, such as having a cup of coffee in the morning or writing your thoughts in a journal. Positive affirmations can also boost your mood. Counselors are often reticent in praising themselves despite the vital work they are doing. If you are kind to yourself each day, you will be less stressed and more positive.
Don’t be afraid of participating in your own personal therapy if you need it either. Having a separate space to talk about your life and feelings with a therapist can provide a pillar of support when you need it the most. Counselors are more prone to isolation at work as they don’t tend to work in groups, but mainly one-on-one with clients. Social chats are rare, so try to establish a professional support structure, as well as a personal one, to help you.
Switching off outside of work
Self-care also extends beyond work to the things you do at home. It might not be a good idea, for example, to voraciously consume news content on your smartphone after work as this can increase feelings of anxiety. Instead, try to read a novel for a set amount of time each night to wind down and relax. You could also listen to music, practice breathing exercises or partake in yoga. Anything that helps you to relax and switch off is ideal.
It’s also important to be aware of your own emotional state. Counselors can struggle with processing another person’s emotions at work, which can lead to internal conflict and exhaustion. Creating a boundary between your client’s feelings and your own and having a process that strengthens this boundary will make life easier and allow you to impart higher-quality, more relevant personal advice.
Experts recommend writing a gratitude journal covering the things that you like and enjoy in your life and your upcoming career goals so other people’s emotional difficulties don’t consume and overwhelm you. When you have a system in place that works, you will find that you will be better able to deal with the problems you face during the day.
Putting a self-care plan in place
Research shows that self-care plans are beneficial for counselors in several ways. If you put together a daily wellness routine, you will become more self-aware and gain a better understanding of both your own and your client’s physical and mental experiences. Perhaps most importantly, you will contain and externalize any issues or problems you are going through, so they don’t fester away and potentially become something debilitating in the future.
Thinking outside of your professional duties is vital to this, so don’t prioritize volunteering or a second job in your spare time. Focus on yourself. Counseling professor Gerard Lawson concludes: “At some point, you need to do something with another part of your brain, not something where you’re caring for others or putting others’ needs ahead of your own.”