The concept of wellness can be found across history, from ancient civilizations through the foundational tenets and ethical codes of contemporary counseling and allied mental health and medical disciplines. Counseling professionals in particular have embraced a holistic, wellness-oriented approach that contrasts with traditional medical/illness models, and many of our theoretical approaches have adopted health-enhancing, prevention-oriented ideals. As a result, counselors serve as agents of wellness promotion and models of wellness by integrating and practicing wellness-based philosophies and practices in their personal and professional lives.
The notion of “therapist, heal thyself” is often used to suggest that helping professionals can and will, simply by virtue of their knowledge of wellness ideals and practices, be better prepared to address life’s diverse challenges. Although counselors certainly possess a dynamic range of concepts and interventions that can be applied in times of distress (and eustress), we remain susceptible to life’s idiosyncrasies just as our friends, families and, yes, clients do. Our effectiveness in serving others as counselors, then, is often connected to our ability to maintain a wellness perspective in our own lives.
The question is: How do we go about healing ourselves as counselors and promoting wellness in our own lives? Awareness appears to be a significant first step in promoting counselor wellness.
A common view of wellness depicted in the media is the notion of “I must,” which suggests that people must do specific things and take explicit actions to be considered healthy. For example, obtaining eight hours of sleep per night and drinking eight glasses of water per day are often cited as keys to good health. We are also told that weight training, cardiovascular exercise, a specific body mass index and consistent social interactions are requisites for health and wellness. Although few would argue that these factors have positive wellness implications, actually attaining all the media-driven perceptions of an ideal wellness state is unreasonable, if not impossible, for many individuals.
The concept of wellness among counseling and allied health professionals provides a healthier, holistic and evidence-based understanding of wellness. In effect, paying attention to the totality of one’s personal wellness facilitates a more accurate perception of wellness and allows one to devise more intentional, individualized wellness plans.
Increasing counselors’ awareness of their current wellness states is an essential component in healing, maintaining wellness and promoting wellness in others. We view wellness in two forms: perceived wellness and aspirational wellness.
Perceived wellness refers to individuals’ self-understanding of their wellness levels, whereas aspirational wellness refers to the level of wellness people wish to achieve. Similar to the concept of cognitive dissonance and the differences between actual and ideal individual states, this perspective of wellness looks at where people are and where people want to be in relation to their personal well-being.
When people are struggling, who they are (how they perceive themselves) can be vastly different from who they want to be (their aspirations). For example, if we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, it is likely that there is a discrepancy between what we are seeing (e.g., physically, mentally, emotionally) and what we desire for ourselves. The central idea is that the less discrepancy that exists between one’s perceived and aspirational wellness, the higher one’s potential is for optimal holistic wellness (i.e., if who I am is close to who I want to be, I am more likely to experience well-being). Conversely, the higher the discrepancy is between perceived and aspirational wellness, the less likelihood there is for achieving advanced well-being.
Assessing your wellness
Contemporary wellness models continue to evolve, providing us with expanding views of the meaning and structure of wellness, as well as numerous interventions and strategies for improving distinct aspects of wellness. Although these models have increased our understanding of wellness as a holistic concept, there remains a need to clarify and address the distinctions between perceived and aspirational wellness.
To assess the wellness discrepancies in helping professionals (counselors, psychologists and social workers), two of the authors of this article, Ashley J. Blount and Glenn W. Lambie, developed the Helping Professional Wellness Discrepancy Scale (HPWDS). The wellness domains measured within the HPWDS are:
- Professional and personal development activities
- Leisure activities
The professional and personal development activities domain includes activities such as furthering knowledge in personal and professional arenas, reading or conducting research relating to the helping professions and taking actions to advance general knowledge (e.g., reading a book, attending seminars or conferences).
The religion/spirituality domain involves partaking in activities centered on advancing spirituality or religious rigor. Examples include having religious or spiritual beliefs that are sustaining, engaging in prayer, experiencing satisfaction with spiritual or religious activity and meditating with a focus on a higher power or spiritual entity. Spirituality and religion have roots in the wellness literature and are included in the majority of wellness and wellness-related models and assessments.
The leisure activities domain refers to engaging in free-time activities and time away from work or chores. This factor can include time spent with others socially or time spent alone. Regardless, leisure time is influential in maintaining well-being.
The burnout domain involves feeling exhausted, run-down, worn out and stressed as a helping professional. Correlations between burnout and unwellness are found throughout the counseling literature, and it is logical that if we are struggling in our work environment, this will overflow into our personal lives as well. Burnout influences us on many levels and can have a negative effect on our well-being.
Finally, the optimism domain is considered a universal construct and is associated with health and well-being. Helping professional optimism includes feeling optimistic personally (e.g., “I am hopeful about my future”) and feeling optimistic about clients’ futures.
Each of the five domains contributes to helping professionals’ overall health and well-being. Increasing your knowledge about your personal experiences in any of these areas can boost your wellness awareness and help you make positive life changes.
Informal wellness assessments
If taking a wellness assessment isn’t on the docket, counselors can choose from other techniques oriented toward wellness awareness. One example is the Wellness Starfish awareness technique, which is based on the sea star balancing exercise developed by Lennis G. Echterling and colleagues (2002).
Here, the first step involves drawing a starfish on a blank piece of paper and filling in each “arm” with an area of life that you feel is important to your well-being (e.g., family time, spirituality, walking with the dog). The wellness starfish example shown [in the print version of this article in Counseling Today] contains the wellness-influencing factors of Jane E. Myers, Richard M. Luecht and Thomas J. Sweeney’s Five Factor Wellness Inventory (2004).
Second, take a couple of minutes to process the items you have written down. Next, consider that starfish are rarely the symmetrical, five-armed creatures we are accustomed to seeing represented in pictures and posters. In reality, starfish can be unevenly proportioned and may even lose and regenerate an appendage during their lifetime. This unique ability to regenerate, or actively change, is central to achieving aspirational wellness. Thus, the final step involves drawing a second wellness starfish, but this time with arm lengths that correspond to your “aspirations” for each area. For example, if your relationship with your partner contributes (or if you want it to contribute) most to your well-being, that area would be represented with the longest arm. See the figure on the lower right for an example of a recreated wellness starfish.
Now consider your new wellness starfish. Which arms are longer or shorter? Why is that? Do any of the shorter arms or missing arms constitute areas that need work in your life or areas in which you could make a change to start the regeneration process? As this simple exercise demonstrates, informal assessment techniques can be tremendously effective in helping you learn about your personal wellness and highlight areas for future growth and development.
Another useful technique involves creating an individualized wellness plan. The plan can contain a single area or many areas for growth. This written plan can follow established wellness tenets such as Bill Hettler’s Six Dimensions of Wellness (i.e., emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual and spiritual), the HPWDS tenets discussed earlier or areas that are based on personal experiences. Regardless of how a wellness domain is labeled, assuming and maintaining an aspirational stance can help ensure that one’s aspirational goals remain the central focus.
The example [in the print version of this article in Counseling Today], adapted from Darcy H. Granello and Mark E. Young (2012), provides a sound framework for addressing key factors that can either support or act as barriers to one’s well-being.
Wellness as prevention
Roughly 75 percent of health care dollars in the United States are spent on treating chronic diseases, whereas only around 1 percent goes to the prevention of illness. Assigning more value to a wellness perspective could help mitigate or even eliminate many illnesses by refocusing attention on lifestyle strategies that are conducive to improving overall well-being. Consider that prominent diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and obesity are often associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices. Adopting a wellness-oriented outlook and lifestyle can lead to positive changes in our diets and our physical and leisure activities.
Wellness is something that is fluid. Because it remains dynamic, it provides individuals with opportunities for change. The challenge for many of us, of course, is awareness and integrating these new behaviors into our lives. Along with adopting a wellness-oriented lifestyle, this requires learning to navigate the discrepancies between who we are and who we want to be, increasing our personal awareness and, ideally, enhancing personal well-being.
Wellness at work
Aligning our lifestyles with a holistic wellness approach can also have considerable occupational benefits for us as counselors. Gerard Lawson (2007) highlighted several key career-sustaining behaviors for counselors that can, by extension, have a positive impact on client outcomes. These behaviors include:
- Maintaining a sense of humor
- Spending time with your partner/family
- Maintaining a balance between your professional and personal life
- Maintaining self-awareness
- Maintaining a sense of control over work responsibilities
- Reflecting on positive experiences
- Trying to maintain objectivity
- Engaging in quiet leisure activities
- Maintaining professional identity
- Participating in continuing education
Some other counselor behaviors found to be beneficial include:
- Consulting with colleagues
- Attending trainings/conferences
- Receiving supervision
- Limiting caseloads
- Attending personal counseling sessions
Although individual needs and expectations will vary, failing to attend to personal wellness is a recipe for poor wellness outcomes, both at home and at the office. Conversely, the activities aimed at raising awareness of wellness are numerous and can be tailored to each counselor’s personal and professional needs.
There is likely no shortage of counseling professionals who feel a bit hypocritical when advocating for their clients to adopt a wellness orientation while simultaneously struggling to maintain balance in their own lives. Even Carl Rogers noted, “I have always been better at caring for and looking after others than I have been at caring for myself.”
Often, the challenge for counselors is not ignorance of the wellness literature or the benefits of wellness, but rather the tendency to forgo our own wellness for the sake of caring for clients and others within our spheres of influence. Thus, adopting or rededicating ourselves to a lifestyle that recognizes our own needs and desires is key to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
The American Counseling Association, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs and the American Psychological Association all support the idea of monitoring the wellness of helping professionals. The HPWDS is a tool that helping professionals can use to assess their areas of wellness strength (low discrepancies between where they are and where they would like to be) and wellness areas for growth (high discrepancies between where they are and where they would like to be). Other wellness assessments (whether formal or informal) can be tailored to meet individual preferences and needs to increase overall well-being.
When it comes to our personal wellness, we often think, “I’ll start next week” or “I’ll get around to that.” It is easy to put ourselves below work deadlines, client responsibilities, family duties — the list goes on and on. Unless we are functioning well, however, we are setting a poor example for the people around us. And beyond that, we may not be providing the best services to
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Ashley J. Blount is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is a national certified counselor and chair of the American Counseling Association Graduate Student Committee. Her research interests include wellness counseling, counselor education and supervision, and counseling athletes and former athletes. Contact her at email@example.com.
Glenn W. Lambie is chair of the Department of Child, Family and Community Sciences and a professor of counselor education at the University of Central Florida. He is an American Counseling Association fellow, a national certified counselor, a national certified school counselor and a certified clinical mental health counselor. His research interests include counselor development and supervision, counseling children and adolescents, and professional school counseling.
Daniel B. Kissinger is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He is a licensed independent mental health practitioner and certified professional counselor. His research interests include the student-athlete experience, wellness and clinical supervision.
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