Therapist Burnout - What Are The Causes and How To Deal With It

Do therapists have unlimited patience and empathy? Aren't therapists experts in self-care and healthy relationships?

But, contrary to the belief, therapists are not immune to burnout.

Therapists focus their energy and thoughts while dealing with the challenges of providing services to their clients. They also experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Nowadays, the burnout rate for mental health workers is significantly high.

Burnout primarily manifests as emotional and mental exhaustion. If you take on more than what you can handle and do not self-care, then burnout is inevitable.

One of the challenges of being a mental health counselor is the stressors that can lead to burnout.

  1. Emotional Exhaustion - Therapists work with people who are traumatized, feel pain, have suicidal thoughts, depression, and other psychological conditions.

    It leads to "psychic poisoning" wherein the clients' problems take a toll on your mental wellbeing as well.
  1. Vicarious Trauma - Therapists hear the pain, fear, and traumatic experiences of trauma survivors. This exposure to trauma has significant psychological consequences on the therapist.
  2. Discrimination by Clients - Some clients may discriminate, belittle, and humiliate their therapists. Such prejudiced feedback might make you question your ability to treat. You may doubt your qualities, expertise, and worthiness.

    Related: How Can Therapists Handle Bias and Discrimination From A Client?
  1. Distress and Worry - When therapists treat patients that have suicidal thoughts or homicidal tendencies, there is the constant worry of the unknown. It may lead to losing sleep over this and will affect your ability to treat clients.
  2. Distraction - When you are very focused on your clients' problems, you may lose track of what's happening in your life.
  3. Helplessness - Unlike other professions, psychotherapy does not show immediate and definite results. More often than not, therapy takes time and is a slow process.

    Sometimes, treatment works well, and you see a significant improvement in your client. But when clients leave, you are unsure about the long term effects of the therapy on them. It may cause you to feel helpless.
  1. Unable to Shut-Off - Patients share private aspects of their lives with therapists. But, it is better to address what is relevant and helpful to them. Knowing about so many intimate moments of a patient's life causes a one-way relationship. Sometimes, it may lead to "voyeuristic tendencies."
  2. God Complex - People come to therapists for guidance and help. Many even consider them to be their savior. Some may idealize you.

All of these may lead to the development of an exaggerated sense of self, eventually causing you to distance and disconnect from the clients.

But how do I know I'm burning out?

The following are signs of therapist burnout.

  • When you force yourself to work
  • As a therapist, you interpret every case differently. But, burnout causes you to look at all situations as the same and analyze the same again and again
  • Unable to stick to your schedule
  • Zone out during sessions
  • Unable to empathize
  • Decline in compassion
  • You may start to force your ideas, beliefs, assumptions, or theories instead of listening to your clients.
  • You like it when clients cancel the appointments or when you do not have to see them.
  • Avoid reading and staying up-to-date with the current developments in your field.
  • Self-disclose to the client that may be inappropriate or not beneficial to them

How to heal from burnout?

  1. Stay in touch with yourself - Time to reflect and restore. Seek therapy, practice yoga, exercise daily, indulge in your hobbies, sleep well, and spend time with your loved ones. Therapists need time to unwind. Connect with others outside your work. Remember to take care of yourself and tend to your needs as well.

    Corona Anxiety: Why Therapists Need Therapy Themselves
  1. Work-life balance - Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Avoid answering emails or phone calls during weekends, unless it's an emergency. Finish the paperwork in the office and avoid taking your work home. Enjoy your personal life, and take a vacation more than once.
  2. Maintain high standards - Just like you would make sure to provide services with the highest standards of professionalism, do charge a fair price for your services and work reasonable hours. Avoid working long hours. Change the way you view work.
  3. Peer support - You could seek the help of your colleague or peers in some cases. You could share your experiences with your supervisor or a trusted colleague.
  4. Creative approach - Do you like sports or theater? Then, have you considered providing therapy to coaches, athletes, theater actors, or students? You could try to match your interests with your profession. You could find your calling and add it to your skillset.
  5. Spread your expertise - Do not just stick to therapy. Combine it with research, teaching, supervising, writing, volunteering, or consultation. Apply your skills to good use. It is the perfect escape from therapy.
  6. Join a professional community - It allows you to meet your colleagues and share your experiences. You get a feeling of oneness in the community. You will also have the opportunity to learn the latest advances and development in the field.

Therapists are master "helpers" but novices when it comes to self-caring. Help your clients figure out and overcome their problems. But, your world does not revolve around your clients.

The first step to dealing with burnout is to acknowledge and find ways to overcome it. As a therapist, you know it more than anyone else.

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