Tag Archives: Counselor Wellness

Counselor Wellness

Nonprofit News: Self-care for caregivers

By “Doc Warren” Corson III March 20, 2017

The field of counseling is one that offers great rewards. We get to see people go from their worst to their best. We get to be a part of the change that our clients are seeking.

Even so, the hours and hours we spend listening to the pain of others can take its toll. That raises an important question: While you invest so much in “saving” others, are you neglecting yourself? If so, you, like many of us in this profession, could be in danger of compassion fatigue or burnout.

 

Understanding compassion fatigue and burnout

Working as a counselor can weigh on you. You may find that you are having more difficulty being empathic in situations in which it once came naturally to you.

And although this compassion fatigue may start at your job, it can bleed over into your most intimate relationships. You may even find yourself feeling that you cannot possibly give anything else emotionally to others.

Among the signs of compassion fatigue are:

  • Excessive blaming
  • Bottled-up emotions
  • Isolating from others
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Poor self-care
  • Legal problems
  • Apathy
  • Feeling mentally and physically tired
  • Feeling preoccupied
  • Living in denial about problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

Burnout is closely related to compassion fatigue, but in extreme cases it can have more serious impacts on a person’s physical and mental health. Some of the signs of burnout include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • A quick trigger to feel angry or suspicious
  • Susceptibility to illness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Burnout does not just happen overnight. Instead, there are stages and patterns that can help you to identify the issues and assist you in addressing them. Although having a great deal of enthusiasm for a project is considered positive and can often lead to a wealth of progress, look for signs of stagnation, frustration or apathy that may follow. Each is a sign of trouble.

Stages of burnout:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Stagnation
  • Frustration
  • Apathy

 

Prevention

Prevention is vital if one wants to keep working at optimum levels. Look at the list of practical ways to find balance, recharge and stay focused. Be prepared to think outside of “normal therapist behaviors” and identify those things that help you remain focused and energetic. Consider hobbies and activities that you once enjoyed but perhaps stepped away from because of graduate studies or other life-related obstacles. Embrace what you once enjoyed, especially those things that are far removed from the helping professions.

As for me, I re-embraced classic car restoration and time spent in nature, while adding classic farm tractor collecting (among other hobbies). So, go see that play or musical, get your hands dirty, listen to loud music or take part in other events. You cannot stay “on” all the time and still be effective as a counselor.

Here are some tips on prevention of compassion fatigue and burnout for helping professionals:

  • Get educated on signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout
  • Practice self-care
  • Set emotional boundaries
  • Engage in outside hobbies
  • Cultivate healthy friendships outside of work
  • Keep a journal
  • Boost your resiliency
  • Use positive coping strategies
  • Identify workplace strategies
  • Seek personal therapy

We are involved in one of the most emotionally draining professions that exist. You are here because you want to help people make a change and sustain that change. So give yourself the ongoing maintenance that your body and mind require. Find the answer that works best for you and follow through. We have too many people depending on us. We owe it to them, but, most importantly, we owe it to ourselves. Let’s do this.

 

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Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Wellness matters

By Ashley J. Blount, Glenn W. Lambie and Daniel B. Kissinger November 2, 2016

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 branding-images_wellnesswellness. 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
  • Religion/spirituality
  • Leisure activities
  • Burnout
  • Optimism

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
  • Socializing
  • 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.

Conclusion

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
our clients.

 

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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 ablount@unomaha.edu.

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.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Break away: Five vacation hacks for the responsible counselor

By Cheryl Fisher September 5, 2016

The alarm was relentless, even with several taps on the snooze button. I finally surrendered to the morning and rolled out of bed, practically tumbling over my 65-pound goldendoodle, Max, who was snoring below my feet.

With one eye open, I made my way to the shower and blasted the scalding droplets over my sleepy body, allowing the water to wash away the slumber. Eventually, I resurrected to a new day.

Walking to my bedroom, I threw on the work attire I had set out the evening prior and towel dried my hair, desperately trying to hide the impending gray that was peeking through faded highlights. I painted on my face, twisted up my hair and headed to the kitchen, where I grabbed my oatmeal packet and a glass of juice.

Perusing my day planner (yes, I still use the old-school paper kind), I reflected on the day ahead. It would include seeing eight clients, submitting end-of-the-month claims, contacting an insurance company regarding a denial, returning phone calls from prospective clients and scheduling my own dental appointment. Glancing over the client list, I noted that my last two appointments were with couples that were still refining their communication from competitive yelling matches to accusatory squabbling.

Sigh. By this point, I felt horribly exhausted — and it was only 6:30 a.m.!

I texted my husband, “I am working till 8 tonight. Love you.”

“I love you too!” I heard from the other room. He was still home?

I walked into the other room, kissed the dogs and rubbed my husband behind the ears. Perhaps coincidentally, I suddenly realized it was time for a vacation.

 

Take a break

As counselors, we spend hours listening with great attentiveness to the pain and suffering of others. I see approximately 25 clients per week. That is 25 hours of meetings with individuals who are hurting and hoping to discover an elixir to their pain in our therapeutic work together. It is, by far, the most rewarding (and exhausting) vocation I have had the privilege of engaging in.

With that privilege comes great responsibility, which includes accessibility. Technology allows clients to seek immediate connection to their counselors via text, instant messaging and email. Counselors are now (theoretically) accessible 24/7.

I remember receiving a text message from a client at 11:30 p.m. I am normally snoring at that time, but this particular night, I was up reading a book when the message buzzed through. The client was texting me her suicide note.

Of course I acted on it by calling the police on my landline and hanging on the business phone with the client until she was found and taken to the hospital. But the magnitude of responsibility around receiving that message haunted me for days. What if I had been asleep when it came through?

The point is that we do “people work” that often involves crisis intervention related to life-and-death issues. Our jobs, while incredibly rewarding, are stressful, so we need to take breaks to retain some form of homeostasis in our lives.

 

Strike a balance

Unlike many other career paths, counselors must navigate the needs of their clients when planning vacations. There are ethical and legal issues to consider when taking a hiatus from a clinical practice. Standard A.12. of the ACA Code of Ethics mandates that counselors do not abandon or neglect clients and instead make “appropriate arrangements for the continuation of treatment, when necessary, during interruptions such as vacations, illness, and following termination.”

Furthermore, counselors may be held legally liable should something happen to a client in the counselor’s absence if no backup care was provided. Therefore, there must be a balance between self-care and client care.

 

Tips for a smooth (and responsible) getaway

Here are five quick tips for planning that much-deserved vacation while still attending to your practice.

1) Alert your clients of your pending absence in advance and discuss backup plans with them. My daughter (who lives out of state) requested that I spend a month with her following the birth of my grandson. Although I longed to spend as much time as possible with them, I also was concerned about the needs of my clients. I discussed this with my daughter (and son-in-law), and we decided on a three-week visit instead (to be evaluated and changed as needed). I then began informing my clients about my pending absence several months prior to the delivery. Together we discussed strategies for coping and created scenarios for possible relapse that allowed for preventative measures. Finally, we discussed using a backup counselor for added support.

2) Arrange for a backup counselor. I have made arrangements with several of my colleagues to trade off services when vacations arise. Although my clients have never activated this backup system, I have found that it is a great comfort to them to have it in place.

3) Set a clear away message on your phone and email settings that provide the telephone numbers for the Warm Line, Hot Line and emergency backup counselor. Not all clients will require a session with a backup counselor, but a brief interlude with a Warm Line professional can alleviate their nervous jitters in your absence.

4) Unplug. This is probably one of the most challenging aspects of going on vacation as a counselor today. In the olden days — you know, in the age of landlines — clients left messages that were addressed when the counselor returned to the office. But technology provides the impression of total accessibility, even when you are on vacation. For example, while I was in Scotland, I had a client continually attempt to email and call me. Despite my months of preparation with her and my detailed away message that provided phone numbers for additional support, she was relentless in her pursuit. Finally, I returned her call, directed her to a support in my absence and turned off my phone.

5) Contact the ACA Risk Management Helpline for additional guidance. Invariably, there are going to be times when you must leave unexpectedly and are not able to provide your clients with weeks of preparation. The Risk Management Helpline, sponsored by the American Counseling Association, can provide guidance to ACA members concerning standards of practice that will best support the safety and well-being of your clients … and the enjoyment of your much-needed and deserved downtime. See counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics for more information.

 

Conclusion

As counselors, it is imperative that we take time for vacation, unplug from our clients and reconnect with ourselves, our family members and friends, and that which is sacred in our lives. In doing so, we not only replenish our own reserves (which allows us to remain available to our clients over the long term), but also provide our clients and colleagues with a model of good self-care.

On that note, I think I will pack up my Jeep and head to the beach for a few days of sun, sand and solitude!

Till next month …

 

Surf fishing before sunrise in the Outer Banks, North Carolina

Outer Banks, North Carolina/Photo via unspash.com

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.

 

 

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
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Counselor addresses self-care, guilt in the wake of Orlando shooting

By Samuel Sanabria July 5, 2016

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” — Fred Rogers

 

It was 9:53 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, when I received a text from my husband regarding the mass shooting at Pulse, an Orlando, Florida, nightclub catering mainly to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

I was wrapping up the week at a sex education and counseling conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I was sitting in our closing plenary session. It had been a week of personal empowerment. I had been absorbed by the many workshops on sexual inclusivity, especially regarding the LGBT community. I was surrounded by like-minded professionals who were advocating for change in our society’s attitudes toward sexual minorities. My evenings were spent enjoying time with my husband and 7-year-old daughter, who had come with me to Puerto Rico to enjoy the beach and pool at the conference hotel. It was a nice way to kick off the summer with my family.

As I sat in the final session, I looked down at the text and read the headline of the link my husband had sent me, “Orlando Shooting: 50 People Killed.” Reading further, I learned the shooting had taken place at Pulse, which is just a few miles from our home. I had enjoyed visiting the nightclub with my husband and friends on numerous occasions.

After reading the article again, my thoughts quickly turned to my immediate friends who might have been at Pulse when the shooting occurred. I began to worry. I could no longer focus on the session and stepped outside to begin texting friends to see if they were OK. Thankfully, my friends were safe, but they were as distraught as I was and were anxiously going through their own lists of friends. Social media was filled with news of the shooting. Some posts provided reassurances of loved ones’ safety. But, heart-wrenchingly, other posts were from people seeking information about family and friends who were still missing.

As we traveled back home the next day and as the names and faces of the victims were gradually released in the media, I was struck by how many young people of color were killed on what was “Latin Night” at the nightclub. As a gay Latino man who had visited Pulse, I felt a strong connection to the victims and their families. I didn’t talk much during our flight back to Orlando. I spent the time turned inward, trying to make sense of what had happened and thinking about what my city was going through. I was distressed by my roiling emotions and felt trapped by the logistics of travel. I couldn’t wait to do something to help the victims and their families.

After arriving home, I visited The Center, Orlando’s LGBT community center, to volunteer crisis counseling and Spanish translation services. The common area of The Center was a beehive of activity as volunteers welcomed visitors, organized donations, worked crisis phone lines and did their best to help people affected by the shooting. Local individuals, organizations and

Lucia Lassiter-Sanabria, the author's 7 year-old daughter, at a memorial site set up recently at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. "I had been talking to Lucia about the [Pulse] shooting and wanted to show the enormous amount of love and support that was given.  It was a tender moment watching her walk around and look at the pictures of the victims and reading some of the signs of love," says Sanabria.

Lucia Lassiter-Sanabria, the author’s 7 year-old daughter, at a memorial site set up recently at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. “I had been talking to Lucia about the [Pulse] shooting and wanted to show the enormous amount of love and support that was given. It was a tender moment watching her walk around, look at the pictures of the victims and read some of the signs of love,” says Sanabria.

businesses had donated food, water, services and gifts, while others were providing safe spaces for anyone who needed support. People from all over the country and the world were donating money to support the survivors and victims’ families. And, of course, professional counselors from around the state had stepped up to provide grief and crisis counseling.

Witnessing all of this activity and the many people who were traumatized or retraumatized by the news and stories of the shooting, I felt the magnitude of what this tragedy had done, not only to the victims at Pulse but to our entire community. It was at this point, standing there witnessing the outpouring of grief and anger, that I felt anxious, insignificant and powerless. I immediately felt an internal pressure to do as much as I could to help.

Throughout the week, I met with and provided support for survivors of the shooting; debriefed with my students in each of my summer classes; took my daughter and a couple of her friends to the LGBT center with sympathy cards I had helped them create; attended vigils; donated money; and locked arms with other LGBT activists and allies to block the well-known hate group, Westboro Baptist Church, from disrupting the funeral of one of the victims.

Despite this involvement, I still felt anxious, insignificant and powerless. These feelings stubbornly remained in the face of so much need. As my anxiety grew, I began losing sleep, had difficulty concentrating and was irritable. The worst part was my need to reenact, in my imagination, some of the stories I had heard on the news and from the survivors I had spoken with. These feelings were exacerbated by the litany of anti-gay and pro-gun political messages being expressed by the talking heads on various media outlets.

I realized I was experiencing burnout as a result of vicarious trauma and needed to make some immediate changes, starting with recognizing the importance of self-care.

 

Counselor self-care

Most counselors are familiar with the importance of self-care. Many of us spend hours each day listening to difficult stories, and for those who work in crisis care, these stories can be exceedingly tragic. Providing empathy for our clients is the hallmark of our profession, but it is also a main contributor to compassion fatigue. Counselors often become so involved in their work that they do not take adequate time to check in with how that work is affecting them physically and emotionally.

It is important that counselors remain alert to the warning signs of compassion fatigue. Physiological symptoms may include physical exhaustion, headaches, insomnia and increased susceptibility to illness. Emotional symptoms include anger, irritability, gradual disassociation, depression and difficulty concentrating. Ignoring these warning signs can lead to counselor impairment, which puts clients at risk for harm.

Red sky with rainbowIt is a counselor’s ethical and professional responsibility to work toward reducing compassion fatigue. This does not mean fighting against these feelings, but rather working through them, both before and after meeting with clients. Giving oneself permission to break for self-care can also help reduce compassion fatigue. This can be as simple as pausing for a deep breath and identifying one’s physical and emotional responses throughout the day. It can also be vital to create some mental space between oneself and the work, perhaps by spending quality time with family and close friends.

Taking these steps may be challenging for some, especially when working with a community impacted by a tragic event. Luckily, my close friend and colleague has a background in crisis work and, knowing the importance of self-care, reached out to me daily with reminders to take breaks and meditate on my physiological and emotional responses.

Once I recognized the symptoms of compassion fatigue within myself, I made sure to spend quality time with my family and to show appreciation for them. These were meaningful experiences that helped me re-center myself.

Also, at my friend’s suggestion, and for the first time in my professional life, I attended a support group for counselors. I appreciated being able to share how this tragedy had affected me in a room of supportive individuals who were going through the same experience. This group outlet was important and I noticed a reduction in my level of anxiety. However, there was still something that kept me from moving forward. It wasn’t until I heard another counselor share her experience with guilt for not doing enough that something clicked inside me.

 

Recognizing and addressing guilt

Another common experience among crisis counselors is the feeling of empathy guilt and survivor’s guilt.

Empathy guilt is a reaction to someone’s pain or distress that leads to the belief that one should try to work toward relieving those feelings. This can also lead to the feeling that one is not doing enough to help others relieve their pain. Survivor’s guilt can occur with someone who has survived a traumatic event or, in the case of counselors, works directly with victims impacted by a traumatic event. The symptoms of empathy guilt and survivor’s guilt include feeling regret, isolation, helplessness and, in serious cases, suicidal ideation.

One of the best ways to work through guilt is to share the experience with others and to recognize that this is a common emotion that, if properly managed, can be used to further empathize with the experiences of our clients. During the counselor support group, I was able to share my feelings of guilt and begin the acceptance process. I realized that it was not necessary to fully rid myself of these feelings of guilt; instead, I could use them to gain better insight into my internal emotional processes.

I came to understand that there was no amount of hours I could volunteer, marches I could walk, sympathy cards I could help my daughter create or money I could donate that would change what had happened to the victims of the shooting. I realized that “never enough” was good enough. This realization became a central part of my self-forgiveness and healing.

 

Conclusion: Never enough is good enough

This tragedy has shattered lives. It will take years to understand why this happened, if we ever can. The greater Orlando community has been galvanized, and I can feel a sense of unity and compassion that is heartening.

Personally, I have come to grasp one of the most important lessons of being a counselor, advocate, ally and humanitarian: Despite our best efforts and whatever time we put in, we will never achieve “enough.” Once I understood this, I felt a profound sense of peace and self-forgiveness. As I write this, the need for caring and supportive counselors in Orlando continues. Fortunately, I am able to volunteer service in a way that doesn’t deplete me or put those seeking my help at risk of harm.

It still breaks my heart to think about the bright lives taken from our community. As I sat with the other crisis workers in our support group, I realized that we had all been affected by this senseless tragedy and that we needed support just like everybody else. We laughed, cried and hugged each other; we respected our own emotional struggles; and we sat in silence to honor the lost lives. Most important, we helped strengthen one another so that we can go back out there and do work that will never be enough.

 

 

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Samuel Sanabria is a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida with more than 15 years of clinical experience. He is an associate professor in the graduate counseling program at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Contact him at ssanabria@rollins.edu.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Dandelion strong: Lessons from a weed

By Cheryl Fisher June 13, 2016

 

“A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 The cool misty rain offers my gardens ample moisture for the tiny seeds to swell in the early spring. The feathery green carrot tops and sprouting beans and squash gently push through the dark earth. Chamomile and mint pry loose from the grip of the cool soil. The sunflower leaves unfold intently toward the sun, capturing the nourishing rays in the creases.

Still so fragile and prey to hungry predators, the seeds swell and sprout … stretch and climb … creating an offering that will one day provide nourishment for my family. With a watchful eye, I monitor the germination of my tiny seedlings, removing anything that may hinder their growth and final path. Invariably, as I water and weed, I will witness the perseverance of the dandelion.

The dandelion is the most misunderstood of all weeds. Its young green leaves contain substantial levels of vitamins A, C, D and B, in addition to iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and a variety of other minerals. When plucked, dandelion greens make a divine summer salad. The root has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and (when fermented) offers an earthy Dandelionlibation. The burst of yellow provides early nectar for the pollinating bees and butterflies. Furthermore, according to research being conducted at Johns Hopkins University, this prolific weed may contain anti-cancer properties.

Dandelions grow under the most challenging of circumstances, often making their home in extremely unlikely locations such as concrete cracks. Then, just as their vibrancy begins to fade, the white puffy seedlings are carried along by the breeze, eventually landing, swelling and creating another generation of dandelions.

 

Dandelion or orchid?

The moxie of the dandelion has been metaphorically captured in a typology related to human resilience. The dandelion child versus the orchid child (originally coined by Bruce Ellis at the University of Arizona) has in recent years been a research topic that examines the interaction between genetics and environment in resilient behavior patterns.

The dandelion child is someone who appears to flourish despite adversity, whereas the orchid child tends to be more sensitive to her or his surroundings and environmental influences. In theory, this sensitivity may result in a greater propensity for both physical and psychological unwellness when exposed to adverse circumstances.

Yet our orchid friends need not fret. Given the right tools, these delicate creatures demonstrate their own resiliency.

 

Dandelion strong

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to a variety of challenging experiences. According to psychologist and researcher Susan Kobasa, there are three elements associated with resilient people: the ability to accept the challenge, the ability to be committed to one’s life and the ability to clarify personal control in any situation.

Here are the ABCs to becoming dandelion strong:

1) Accept the challenge. Physically prepare for any challenge by getting plenty of sleep, eating healthfully and engaging in physical activity. Let’s face it, our ability to cope is significantly reduced when we are tired, hungry and weak. Optimal health promotes resiliency.

Furthermore, life is filled with challenges, and each has the potential to be a teacher. This may require leaning into the situation despite discomfort.

As a student of jiu-jitsu, I learned the importance of leverage and flow. Force against force creates a wall and, invariably, a lack of movement. However, leaning into the energy of your opponent will disarm her and allow for movement, which in jiu-jitsu means submission and successful completion of a match. Therefore, lean into that anxiety or fear. It may be telling you to better prepare for that exam or end that dysfunctional relationship.

Finally, viewing an obstacle as temporary allows for a more positive assessment of the situation and promotes a “can do” attitude. A plethora of research supports the power of positive thinking in overall wellness. Surround yourself with inspirational messages that remind you of your ability to get through this challenging moment. I have a sign in my office that reads, “She thought she could … so she did!” So I DID earn that Ph.D. at the age of 50!

2) Be committed. Resiliency is accompanied by a commitment to life, goals and relationships. Alfred Adler, Viennese physician and founder of Adlerian psychology, held that humans are goal-oriented and experience an overall sense of wellness when contributing to community through work, intimacy and friendships. What is most compelling is the desire for these goals (work, intimacy and friendship) to be not only achievable but meaningful. Therefore, find a greater value in your work and relationships.

For example, I remember counseling a client who was experiencing some struggle around the recent death of her estranged mother. Although this client struggled with many issues related to her relationship with her mother, she held firm to the value of her vocation as a janitor. She had worked for a local high school for more than 25 years. She described in detail how it gave her pleasure to take care of the rooms of “those hardworking teachers.” She saw her role as necessary and supportive in the overall education system. She viewed it as a higher calling.

My client recalled a time when she was putting away supplies long after the school day had ended. In the process, she came across a student sitting alone in the corner of the supply room. She told me how she had put her equipment away and then sat down on the cold cement slab next to the student. She described how this student disclosed to her that he felt lost and scared. He had just found out that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he couldn’t deal with it.

“He was going to hang himself! Right here in my closet,” my client told me, shaking her head in disbelief. She went on to tell me how she had talked this young man out of killing himself and stood by his side while he called his mom to tell her that he was in trouble. She beamed as she told this story. She realized the sacred work she provided as a high school janitor.

3) Clarify control. Resiliency includes a clear understanding of personal control. Compassion and empathy do not require the expenditure of energy worrying about things that are out of the person’s control. This is often one of the most difficult lesson to learn. You do not need to take on the drama offered by others. Nor do you need to manage the emotional state of others. Allow other people to manage their own emotional regulation and well-being.

In any given situation, a resilient person will ask “what do I have control over?” and act accordingly. If you don’t have control, then take a deep breath and (sing it with me) … LET IT GO!

 

Conclusion

Some people just seem to take life in stride, naturally maneuvering the unpredictable terrain. However, the rest of us can develop skills that allow us not only to join the hike but actually take the lead (by accepting the challenge, committing in a full and meaningful way, and clarifying our personal control in the situation).

There is an element of truth in Friedrich Nietzsche’s words: “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Like the dandelion, we can learn to persevere in the most unlikely of circumstances.

However, as I stand here in my garden, thoughtfully contemplating my next move in relation to this bright yellow hardy bud that has started to take residence among my herbs and vegetables, I am reminded of one final lesson offered by this garden-variety Taraxacum officinale: Look for the wishes among the weeds!

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is visiting full-time faculty at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.

See Fisher’s debut column “Seeking connections to ourselves, others and the sacred