Practicing proper self-care is often the prescription that professional counselors will share with their clients to help manage life stressors and mental health symptoms during their day-to-day lives.
That emphasis has taken on new meaning over the past several months as self-care routines have been offset by quarantining measures from the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, sleeping patterns were thrown off by newfound anxiety. Routine pleasures such as listening to a podcast or playlist during the morning and evening commute disappeared as working from home became the new norm. With gyms closed, people were forced to adjust their exercise routines and workout habits. Typical avenues of social escape — restaurants, movie theaters, salons — were also closed. Even parks and hikes were off-limits in some states for a time.
In spite of the limitations, self-care has never been more meaningful given the conditions that people found (and, in some cases, still find) themselves in. Stephanie Burns, an associate psychology education professor and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Western Michigan University, says the unprecedented times prompted unprecedented human responses.
“Two things were happening at once for clients coming into therapy: They were going through their own already-existing struggles of depression and anxiety. Then there’s the trauma from what this crisis brought. Trauma is really about anything providing discomfort or distress to where an individual feels overwhelmed. It’s not something as obvious as getting hit by a car. Consciously, you can think some of this doesn’t bother you. But in the subconscious mind, trauma can exist. Everyone lost something from COVID. People lost jobs, loved ones and, by and large, their daily lives.”
On the positive side, the pandemic’s conditions have presented new opportunities for self-care for many people — with extra time at home for projects such as painting, playing music and experimenting with cooking and baking, more quality time with pets, additional emotional space to journal and a renewed premium on daily walks.
“There’s such a protective element to our routine, and our emotions get caught up in that pattern,” says Eric Beeson, president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. “By being at home for several months, we had to readjust by finding normal in the abnormal. Normal had to be reconceptualized.”
That concept of normal was flipped upside down for clinicians too. The same focus on self-care needs to extend to therapists in their own lives and can be a unique blind spot, according to experts. Burns says she often reminds her counseling students that self-care works both ways and to practice what they’re so often taught to preach to clients.
“As counselors, when aspects of the client start matching you, then we run the risk of aligning with them and assuming what’s working for us is working for them,” says Burns, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Because of COVID, we were all going through the trauma and the grief process of our everyday lives at the same time. We cannot as clinicians expect to not be impacted by all this at the exact same time on a personal level. Then we add the extra layer of vicarious trauma from clients with intensified needs where we take on their pain. That all adds up to extra layers that cannot be neglected.”
Gideon Litherland, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Veduta Consulting in Chicago and a Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University researching supervision effectiveness, says emotional pace is an area for clinicians to pay attention to in working with clients.
“There’s been an overall shift in how we think about self-care as clinicians,” Litherland says. “Particularly during COVID, we should be asking ourselves, ‘How can I meaningfully and effectively engage in clinical work? Personally and professionally, am I able to buffer any side effect of burnout and compassion fatigue?’ Maybe we need 15-20 minutes in between each client because of our added pressures. Pace certainly matters for us because the speed of life right now feels fast.”
Litherland adds that with the heavy increase in telehealth sessions during the pandemic, self-care has become even more integral. “The volume can take its toll,” he says. “Particularly when we’re connecting through a computer screen, a video monitor, it’s a different mode of attending for us. We’re working harder to extract more information from limited data. The sessions might be doable, but the wealth and richness aren’t as easy to pick up as in person.”
Carol Park, CEO and founder of the virtual platform company Thera-LINK, says telehealth was already on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic. But shelter-in-place orders prompted a huge increase and reliability on digital therapy. The benefits for both clinicians and clients can be widespread, but Park notes that she’s found treating virtual sessions slightly different than in-person sessions can be helpful for clinicians’ self-care.
“People who were having struggles pre-COVID, now they were needing connection even more,” Park says. “Telehealth really has filled that void for clients. For therapists, it’s important to know that you’re not quite getting that neuroconnectivity element. You sort of lose that sixth sense. As a therapist myself, I’ll leave feeling a little bit more depleted. You work a little bit harder.”
As states have started to gradually open up establishments and shelter-in-place orders have lifted around the country, private practices and therapy businesses are also opening their doors. With some clients returning to work, that gradual adjustment can be mended in the therapy room.
“I think one of the most important things is being gentle with ourselves, accepting that things are different,” Litherland says. “We’ve all been through something. We have to look at what previously worked for us and feel out how it fits into a new reality.”
Beeson, who is also a licensed professional counselor in West Virginia and a professor at Northwestern’s Family Institute, says the initial concept of easing back into day-to-day life as a clinician (mirroring the process many clients were experiencing) was interrupted by current events. The killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers sparked nationwide protests and, from Beeson’s perspective, put a renewed focus on clinicians’ roles being about more than just sitting in the counselor’s chair.
“When you look at wellness models, they’ve become accentuated more now,” Beeson says. “Continued racism and violence and health care disparity have always been there. But they’re highlighted more now. So, my sense of getting back to normal might be more cannonball-like considering the sense of urgency I feel in my role as a professional counselor, leader and person. Sometimes that sense of purpose can be part of our self-care too. As we come back to our daily lives, things have changed. There’s a need to collaborate and come together now more than ever.”
Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor at DG Counseling in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Chicago. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.