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Self-care has been defined as “the process of establishing behaviours to ensure holistic well-being of oneself, to promote health, and actively manage illness when it occurs.” Self-care is something of a buzzword right now, but that shouldn’t minimise how important the concept is.
The number of Google searches for the term ‘self-care’ has quadrupled since 2018. Rising awareness of self-care has led to the NHS launching a campaign called ‘Choose Self-Care For Life’ in order to promote the concept as widely as possible.
If you are working in the mental health professions, then it is particularly important to practise self-care and take care of your own health and mental well-being, whilst also caring for your patients.
But what is self-care in real terms, and what are the risks of neglecting to practise self-care? What strategies should you implement to practise self-care as a counsellor? This article will discuss the significance of self-care for counsellors. Here’s everything you need to know:
Self-care means different things to different people, and there are many ways to show self-care. Self-care means taking time out to do things that will improve your physical and mental well-being. For some people, self-care is taking a long bubble bath. For others, it is simply ensuring that they drink eight glasses of water each day.
A broader definition of self-care from the World Health Organisation suggests that “self-care is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” What this definition doesn’t take into account is the mental health tax that can occur from not taking the time you need to care for yourself.
Just some of the physical and mental health benefits of regularly practising self-care include managing your stress levels, lowering your risk of illness, and increasing your energy levels. In the long term, those who practise self-care tend to be more motivated, both in their professional and personal lives. Studies show that overall life satisfaction is higher in those that practise self-care, and practising self-care can reduce your risk of developing a mental health disorder.
Counsellors are responsible for the mental health and well-being of their patients. For this reason, many counsellors will recommend that their patients take the time to practise self-care. The role of a counsellor is to help their patients or clients to process any emotional or psychological difficulties that they are dealing with, implement valid changes and improve their overall well-being. Just some of the issues that a counsellor can help patients with include depression, anxiety, stress, loss and relationship difficulties. Counsellors will work with their patients to manage the mental, emotional and physical problems that can arise as a result of these conditions.
But whilst counsellors are responsible for the mental health of their clients, it is just as important that they take care of their own mental health. Many counsellors often feel that they carry the burden of the mental health issues of their patients. For example, listening to the trauma of others on a daily basis can be draining. And whilst most counsellors are naturally empathetic individuals, and feel it is an honour to provide support and treatment to their patients, they need to ensure that they are also taking the time to focus on their own mental health and well-being. This is why self-care is so important for counsellors, and other mental health professionals.
Some examples of ways that counsellors can practise self-care include:
- Seeking help and support from friends, family members, and colleagues when you need it.
- Knowing when you have enough on your plate and saying ‘no’ when you can’t take on anything else.
- Drinking plenty of water and fresh food, cutting out processed foods where possible.
- Paying attention to your own mental health. If you notice that your job, relationships, or even output from the media are triggering anxiety, stress, fear or overwhelm then it’s time to take a step back and schedule some time away from whatever is causing these feelings.
- Ensuring that you have a range of hobbies or interests outside of your career so that you can create a clear differential between work and home and create a good work-life balance.
- Take regular holidays, days off, and breaks.
The Risks of Neglecting Self-Care
Amongst the general population, the risks of neglecting self-care can be significant. Individuals who do not take the time to care for themselves can experience problems such as decreased energy levels and patience, increased feelings of hopelessness and symptoms of poor mental health, poor eating habits and the associated physical symptoms that these can cause, difficulties in sleeping, increased headaches, stomach aches and other physical symptoms of stress, and new or worsening relationship challenges or strains.
In isolation, each of these symptoms would be cause for concern. But if a counsellor neglects to focus on their own self-care, there can also be specific consequences to their career. Counsellors that don’t take adequate time to focus on their own needs may suffer from burnout, compassion fatigue, and decreased job satisfaction.
These issues are more widespread than we might think. A wide range of studies have been conducted on the subject and have found that between 21-67% of mental health workers may be experiencing high levels of burnout. Mental health workers, such as counsellors, have high levels of emotional exhaustion because the important work they undertake on a daily basis is so emotionally taxing.
For the same reasons, job satisfaction amongst counsellors and other mental health professionals is lower than in many other professions, including other arms of health care. Whilst 83% of counsellors are generally satisfied working in a mental healthcare role, 49% admit that they find the role stressful.
If a counsellor is suffering from burnout, emotional exhaustion or decreased levels of job satisfaction then this is, of course, concerning for the counsellor in question. Rectifying this problem will lead to improved mood and better physical and mental health outcomes for the counsellor. But it is important to note that a counsellor experiencing any of these concerns may also have a significant and negative impact on the quality of care that they are able to provide for their clients. Therefore for the well-being of their clients/patients, as well as for their own well-being, it is essential that counsellors practise self-care. If they don’t take care of their own needs, they will not be in an optimal position to take care of the needs of their patients.
It is widely acknowledged that burnout and a lack of self-care can be a real concern amongst counsellors. One study conducted in Panama found 36% of mental health professionals suffered from burnout at least once in their careers. For this reason, most counsellors must undergo personal counselling as part of their training process. The required amount of counselling sessions varies from course to course, but on average a counsellor will undergo at least 40 hours of personal therapy. This helps counsellors to develop higher levels of self-awareness about their own needs and any mental health concerns or issues they may have.
Other benefits of undergoing counselling as a counsellor include:
- Developing a greater level of empathy and understanding towards your clients. If you have sat in their chair, then you are more likely to understand how new clients are feeling. You will understand that any anger or aggression they show you is really anger or aggression they feel towards themselves, meaning that you won’t take it personally.
- Dealing with your own issues. Counsellors are not perfect, they are human like the rest of us. Their lives are also moulded by their personal experiences. Working with a counsellor could help you to process these experiences and deal with your own issues, putting you in a more stable place to focus on the issues of others.
- Destigmatising therapy. Many people are still uncertain about seeing a counsellor, or the vital role therapy could play in their lives. There is still a stigma surrounding mental health and, by association, counselling. By seeking therapy themselves, counsellors can demonstrate that working on your own mental health is a healthy and normal aspect of self-care.
Strategies for Practising Self-Care
As a counsellor, it is important to practise self-care in both your personal and professional lives. There are many ways in which you can choose to do so.
The most important thing is to be aware that your own self-care is a priority and to carve out time for yourself as and when you need to. You may find that scheduling regular time for self-care is the most time-efficient way to process larger acts of self-care, whilst smaller acts of self-care, such as getting enough sleep or drinking sufficient water, can be introduced to your day-to-day routine as a matter of habit. As discussed above, one important act of self-care that may be considered unique to counsellors is seeking counselling yourself: though spending more time in the therapy room may feel somewhat counterproductive, it is a great way to process your thoughts and feelings in a safe space.
Some practical tips to help counsellors to prioritise self-care in both their personal and professional lives include:
- Maintaining professional boundaries, and leaving work behind at the end of the day. If you take your work home with you, both physically and metaphorically, then you are never getting the downtime you need to recharge your batteries.
- Be mindful of how you speak to yourself. Treat yourself with the same kindness you treat your clients. Negative thoughts can lead to stress as well as poor mental health.
- Put systems in place. Medical professionals are amongst the busiest in the UK, and with the longest working hours. Ensure you maximise your downtime by putting systems in place to take care of the smaller things. Organise a weekly online shopping delivery. Get your prescriptions delivered by post to save queuing in the pharmacy. Anything you can do to free up time will leave you with more time to focus on yourself.
As outlined above, within their own treatment rooms, it is important that counsellors set boundaries. Clients can only contact you within working hours, for example, and do not build relationships with clients outside of their therapy sessions. Maintaining clear and distinct boundaries between your work life and your home life will play a critical role in helping to minimise your stress levels.
In order to maintain professional standards, all counsellors undergo regular supervision. The UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) describes supervision as “a formal process in which a qualified or trainee psychotherapist or psychotherapeutic counsellor regularly presents his or her client work to a designated or chosen supervisor as a way of enhancing their practice through careful reflection on the process.”
But supervision provides another integral service: it promotes self-care amongst counsellors, providing a safe place for counsellors to discuss how they are feeling and to plan strategies that will reduce their stress levels and burnout.
Self-care is incredibly important not only for counsellors but also for their patients. It is important that counsellors not only provide self-care to their patients but also that they practise what they preach. This is because a counsellor who is suffering from burnout, compassion fatigue, or is otherwise withdrawn from their chosen career path won’t be able to provide the best quality of care to their clients.
Counsellors should be taking time to practise self-care on a daily basis, and they should be introducing self-care methods not only in their personal lives but in their professional lives too.
If you are working as a counsellor, or as another mental health professional, then don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek support when you need it. Your colleagues, friends and family members are all great places to start if you want to improve your work-life balance and introduce a higher level of self-care into your day-to-day life.
If you are a member of The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), and feel that you are suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue then you can access help and support. The BACP provides its members with access to tools to help them deal with grief, access to events, and online resources. They are a great starting point if you wish to discuss your feelings with an impartial third party or feel you would benefit from seeing a counsellor of your own.