Mind Matters

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By Paonam Thoibi

Q: Dear Thoibi, I have always liked the helping profession and also have some few friends in social organisations who are working as counselors. When I still appreciate what counselors do; I wonder how counselors take care of themselves. I cannot imagine that someone who listens to sad tales and problems everyday can ever be healthy themselves. Are there times when the work consumes them and harms them? Can you share how counseling professionals can keep their work stress away? Maybe I can also share it with my friends.- Astha, Delhi

Ans: Dear Astha, thank you for the words of appreciation and concern for the helping professionals.

You are very right and this is an issue I face once a while too. Counselors and other Mental Health Professionals are human beings first and are vulnerable to mental stress and tensions too. We are people with our own personality trait which favour our work or hampers the very purpose and objective of our work.

Many of us work for long unusual hours with large caseloads- with a high amount of trauma which leads us to become unhealthy in mind, body and spirit even impacting the quality of care provided to clients. A lot is expected from the counselors and mental health professionals; like providing tremendous amount of empathy to our clients, giving a sure shot solution to problems, always available in times of need, etc. Often counselors hear to very tragic and emotionally difficult stories on an everyday basis which even depletes off our own wellness. Although most counselors are familiar with self-care, as they suggest means and ways to their clients, many find it a challenge to put the concept into practice in their own lives.

Many Counselors and Mental Health Workers experiences burnout which is a slow degradation of their ability to empathise with clients over time. It can result as work-related stress increases and can result in feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Secondary trauma or stress can also affect counselors when they get so much absorbed in a client’s traumatic accounts and narratives. Another very common experience is the compassion fatigue which often results from their helplessness to a client’s suffering. Counselors can experience anxiety, depression symptoms and emotional withdrawal when they undergo such mental stress. Their objectivity can become clouded and may deny clients’ complaints, misdiagnose and become increasingly less attuned and empathetic.

Also a counselor suffering from his/her own emotional distress may find it difficult to handle a client’s complaints and can compromise client care or poses the potential for harm to the client, reflecting a negative professional functioning.

Most of the stress a counselor faces is typically created by the nature of the work and workplace. As a result, a change in work environment can dramatically improve one’s experience of burnout and other difficulties.

It is important for counselors and mental health workers to understand that there are risk factors inherent in the work and that noticing signs of stress or distress is a sign of health and not incompetency or impairment on their part. It is advisable to work out on their issues first before they are well equipped to help the others. Only when counselors can view their emotional responses to their work as an expected part of empathic engagement rather than something they are doing wrong, they are more likely to seek support, talk about stress with colleagues and engage in self-care practices to support their overall wellness. A self-check up by paying attention to the physical and mental symptoms of stress is important. Actions to reduce those symptoms instead of ignoring them and simply hoping the situation will fix itself are recommended. For myself, I always reach out to the bunch of people in similar professions, seek support and share my load of over accumulating stress and workloads, discuss cases and e
ven ventilate. Even if we don’t have a formal supervision, it really helps to seek help from other professionals with more experience or peer groups. I also try to talk about it with my near ones who understand the nature of work I do.

Professionalism, which includes setting work boundaries, helps in the long run. Being very clear with the consultation charges, working days and hours, appointments and session’s timings is a must. Also if the workplace demands that one works with many professionals from different background and expertise, being very clear about the assigned tasks and nature of work is very important. Work colleagues’ different style of working or inefficiency can also lead to stress as one puts much pressure on another who will be able to accomplish a task.

The basic rule of the thumb strategies to nurture the self during the day, including nourishing with enough water, good nutrition, relaxation and exercise always works the best. A vacation breaks or holidays are must haves.

With all these in mind, if the motivation level suffers a setback, previous successful accounts, thank-you notes from clients and the fact that some lives have been touched by being a counselor will remind one over and again that they have chosen a great career which makes a lot of difference to peoples’ lives.

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