Self care for therapists

therapist burnout, self-care for therapists

Self care for therapists. What a concept. Whether you are in private practice working for yourself or working in a community organization providing services, this one is all about you, therapists. This is your reminder to refill your bucket, or your cup, or whatever metaphor you are using for taking care of yourself. It is time.

As therapists we know this, we say it day in and day out to clients and colleagues. And then, we often completely fail to live it. This is your reminder that self care for therapists is not optional. Therapists may not be completing the most physically demanding jobs on a daily basis, however, mental and emotional fatigue are real. The constant task of focusing on others’ needs is an extremely taxing one and can lead to therapist burnout.

Self care for therapists is a topic frequently discussed, but difficult to pursue in a society that seemingly values hard work and productivity over everything. While it’s true that pushing yourself can be good for you at times, we need to be aware of our personal limitations, and aim for a happy medium. Additionally, it’s important to recognize that we must maintain balance in all areas of life, not just work. We need to consider our personal growth including developing the social, physical, and mental aspects of our lives as well. When we push too hard in one area, other areas begin to suffer, leading to therapist burnout.

What is therapist burnout?

Therapist burnout is an issue facing many clinical providers and results from a variety of factors including the provider’s personal characteristics, workload, client characteristics and workplace belonging. Burnout can be prevented through self care as well as cognitive strategies for managing work demands, smaller caseloads, more flexibility and less paperwork.

What are the signs of therapist burnout? Signs of therapist burnout typically include:
  • Emotional exhaustion: May include feelings of overextension and inadequacy and lack of client compassion.

  • Lack of personal accomplishment and feelings of ineffectiveness: May relate to negative self worth or negative career worth.

  • Depersonalization of clients: Typically occurs when providers feel the need to distance oneself from clients to prevent emotional fatigue. 

Burnout does not seem to be influenced by gender, age, race, ethnicity, degree, work setting or licensure. 

What is the burnout rate for therapists?

The rate of burnout for mental health therapists ranges from 21% to 61% and may influence negative outcomes for clients and practitioners. Burnout has been linked to physical ailments for clinicians such as gastrointestinal disorders and headaches.

Self-Care for Therapists: Top Tips to Prevent Therapist Burnout

Check your Social Connections

Connecting with others is of the utmost importance for a healthy life. In addition to our mental health, our physical health is impacted by our connections with others. Every therapist is aware of the studies regarding the importance of physical touch and connections for the growth of children, but this contact is important for adults as well. Our social connections tend to be the first things to suffer when we aren’t maintaining balance.

Social connections are important for many reasons beyond social interactions and physical touch, however.

These connections have been shown to:
  • Strengthen immune systems
  • Help you recover from illness
  • Lead to an increased chance of longevity

Additionally, individuals with strong social connections tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self esteem, and have greater empathy for others. All characteristics that can help a therapist be the best therapist possible.

Make sure you maintain your friendships. Schedule dates with your partner or lunches with your best friends. Spend time just relaxing and having fun with your extended family. These things improve our lives in immeasurable ways and are part of a regular routine of self care for therapists. Ongoing socialization improves empathy, compassion, and joy. Balance in life requires life to have variety and can help avoid therapist burnout.

Prioritize what makes you Happy

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha

The drive to achieve and help others is behind every good therapist. While this drive is important, it must be kept in balance. Teaching others to live in healthy ways can be both fulfilling and draining. It’s easy to justify cutting off hobbies and fun activities when you’re feeling tired. However, when is the last time you did something just for fun? When did you last take a vacation and leave 100% of your work at home? 

In our increasingly digital world, it seems next to impossible to get away from the constant notifications or emergency emails. Yet, this is exactly what many of us need to do.

Tips for disconnecting include:
  • Scheduling a disconnect from technology every week. Whether it’s an hour away in the evening, a movie night, or a Saturday morning hike in a nearby park, make that time dedicated to doing something you enjoy without allowing work disruptions.

  • Leave your work phone at home.

  • Turn off email and text notifications.

  • Leverage technology to your advantage. Automate tasks like scheduling and communications with tools like EHRs and have peace of mind in knowing these items are being handled for you not by you.

The world will not stop turning because you didn’t personally answer messages for a few hours. Put it on your calendar, make it a firm appointment with yourself and have fun. You will be far more able to contribute to your own life and the world when you practice self care for therapists.

If you need science to tell you why it’s OK to take time off for fun, Michael Rucker can tell you everything you need to know. Taking time for fun doesn’t just help you, it can:
  • Improve your relationships with others
  • Improve your energy level
  • Make you feel more youthful
  • Reduces stress
  • Help balance your hormone levels

Practice Positive Self-Talk and Forgiveness 

“Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love.” – Brené Brown

The importance of positive self talk cannot be overstated. It seems like something too simple to be true, but the fact is how you talk to yourself matters. Research has validated this time and time again.

As therapists, counselors, even teachers, and parents, we know the importance of positive talk. We have told our clients, children, friends, even strangers to never say negative things about themselves or others. We know the brain hears and absorbs these words into our perspective of the self. Yet, how many times have you found yourself talking down internally when a case couldn’t be understood fast enough or when headway couldn’t be made with a client.

Maybe when you were over scheduled and couldn’t accomplish everything you “needed” to complete on time you could be found negatively talking about your focus or drive. This is the opposite of self-care for therapists.

Talk to yourself like you would talk to a client, or as Dr. Brené Brown suggests above, as you would talk to a friend. When you are struggling with a problem, either professional or personal, stop and ask yourself “Is what I am saying something I would say to a good friend going through this?” If the answer is no, then it is time to stop, drop whatever you’re thinking or saying, and take a breath. It might be time to have a tea date with a friend or consult with a colleague that you trust and avoid therapist burnout.

Just as family caregivers can suffer from caregiver burnout, therapists need to be on the lookout for signs of compassion fatigue:
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Reduced feelings of empathy or feeling numb and disconnected
  • Trouble sleeping and unusual nightmares
  • Anhedonia
  • Frequent headaches or stomach difficulties
  • Withdrawal and problems in relationships,
  • Increased feelings of anxiety or irritability
  • Decreased ability to concentrate
  • Increase in substance use as a form of self-medication

At this point, your lack of self care has gone beyond therapist burnout and a significant break and serious focus on restorative self care is needed.

Take Care of Your Body

You need sunshine, plenty of water, and good nutrients. You’re basically a houseplant with complicated emotions. – Unknown 

Health is a holistic practice consisting of multiple facets including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social. I’m sure everyone has experienced the inability to think straight after eating too much junk food and processed sugar. This affects your body on a regular basis and contributes to therapist burnout. If you do not ensure that your body gets the nutrients and movement that it needs, you are not functioning in top condition.

It is easy to find yourself working on documentation through lunch or seeing that emergency client instead of playing tennis with your friends because “it's just this once” or “it’s an emergency, I can’t say no.” However, placing limits and boundaries is an important part of modeling self care to your clients, family, and children.

Practicing self care for therapists feeds you mentally, physically, and emotionally and sticking with boundaries ensures that you are performing at your best, which allows you to help teach others how to be their best.

Movement and physical activity have many health benefits beyond just the obvious physical benefits when it comes to self care for therapists. Physical activity helps release neurotransmitters in your brain that help with happiness and hopefulness and can prevent therapist burnout. Certain nutrients also help ensure the proper balance of chemicals and hormones in the body.

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Be Proactive and Make it a Routine.

When your primary goal is to help others be the best version of themselves, it is easy to lose parts of yourself in the process. It is easy to justify giving up this thing to help that family that would otherwise be on the waitlist or that thing to make sure that your documentation is always done on the same day. This isn’t to say that there aren’t certain legitimate emergencies that require immediate attention, but that should never be the norm.

Individuals choose helping professions because they care about others and the desire to make the world better makes it easy to justify sacrificing parts of yourself. It seems like not that big of a deal in comparison.

However, you are not doing a service to anyone if you are constantly functioning at half steam and experiencing therapist burnout.

Set your intention to focus on taking care of yourself on a daily basis. Make it part of your schedule. Put it in your calendar or as a notification on your phone. Whatever it takes. 

Anything that isn’t prioritized into a habit or part of the regular routine is easy to get thrown aside so group your self care with things you have to complete. Finished writing up an assessment? Take a 10- to 15-minute walk outside with your favorite music or person. Finished writing that chapter for the book you’re working on? Go spend an hour with your partner. Create the guidelines that keep you in balance and remember, when a plane is crashing, before you help anyone with their oxygen mask, the instructions are to put your own on first. You’re no good to anyone deoxygenated.

Self care for therapists should be prioritized given the amount of work providers face on a daily basis. Part of that self care can include automating various aspects of the job that can be repetitive or draining such as scheduling, communication, documentation, invoices or claims. Carve out more time for yourself and your clients by letting technology do some of this work for you. TheraPlatform offers an all-in-one practice management and teletherapy tool and they offer a 30-day trial. No credit card required. Cancel anytime.


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