Essays & Confessions

5 Things To Do To Ensure Your Own Sanity, As Told By A Therapist On The Verge Of Burn Out

By Sunday, February 21, 2021

So, what is it *really* like to be a therapist during a pandemic?

The role of a mental health professional in a pandemic is not clearly outlined in the job description. The learning curve is far greater than I ever imagined. The mental health field has faced few global crises of this magnitude; the international community is awash in grief, loss, trauma, uncertainty, and an amalgam of life stressors. It’s been, and still is, incredibly difficult.

It dawned on me a few months into the initial lockdown that I was considered an essential worker. I would see the signs in the community thanking those working through the pandemic and felt deeply grateful to them…missing that the message was also directed at me. 

I work for an agency that contracts with local schools, both of which have faced tremendous change, the most notable being the shift to functioning in a virtual capacity. Those in private practice or who work in different mental health settings will certainly have varying experiences as a therapist during a pandemic. I use the word “we” throughout this essay to unify us as a field, even if our experiences haven’t been quite the same. I encourage you to comment below about your experience, reflecting on your past year as a therapist – recognize what incredible work you’ve done holding space, experiencing the ebbs and flows alongside the populations you serve. 

The following is my answer to the question, “What is it like to be a therapist during a pandemic?” It’s a complex question, one I don’t believe I can fully and completely answer, but this is what I know to be true:

We are human, a classic therapist catchphrase, but it’s just so applicable to the humbling nature of a pandemic. We’ve really had to “practice what we preach,” as the adage goes. It’s easy as helpers to forget to help ourselves, and this year I certainly slid down that slippery slope on multiple occasions. Sitting in my makeshift home office, I would say again and again, session in and session out, “prioritize rest,” “take it day-by-day,” “use your coping skills.” Not listening to my own admonitions, I began to feel the predictable fatigue and irritation that can quickly progress to burnout. The discussion around burnout has been at the forefront among therapists, and for good reason. So I began to take a handful of therapy concepts and skills more seriously, for the sake of my own mental health: 

  1. Practicing Radical Acceptance, meaning to fully and wholeheartedly accept that which we cannot control. Albeit a challenging practice, it has brought me more peace and presence amidst the conditions of the world. 
  2. Engaging in Healthy Compartmentalization. For feelings more difficult to process, compartmentalization serves to help me to take the daily challenges of the job moment by moment, storing any other feelings or thoughts in a nicely labeled box for later. It’s important to note that this skill takes an essence of mindfulness, as it can quickly spiral into avoidance and escapism. 
  3. Indulging in Comfort and Leisure. For me this looked like watching movies from my childhood, reading middle grade and young adult books, and diving into my favorite YouTube channels. 

We need support, because there have been some seriously isolating moments this past year. My hope for each and every one of you is that you have a solid professional and personal support system. Leaning into these relationships is crucial to maintaining my well-being. My support system consists of my friends, partner, coworkers, my own therapist, therapist Facebook groups, and family. It is essential to talk with those who I can vent to without judgment, those who help me to constructively problem solve, and those who celebrate my small successes (like closing my laptop at 5:00 pm!). 

With this is the larger system of therapists who came together online, on multiple platforms, to share AMAZING resources for learning and implementing therapy over telehealth. Within days of being informed that my agency, among many others, was going remote, I was part of numerous collaborative Google documents for both my agency and online communities with how-to guides, telehealth intervention lists, and more. This is the definition of therapists supporting therapists. 

We either love, hate, or have mixed feelings about telehealth, and I respect the varying opinions out there, but I find that therapy is just not the same virtually as it is in-person. Therapy is equal parts science and art, and forging the human connection present during in-person therapy is incredibly difficult via video chat or phone call. With the medley of other obstacles that come with virtual therapy, it was truly like learning how to be a therapist all over again. Do I think telehealth therapy is still effective? Absolutely. But in my experience, it’s harder and requires more creativity and more energy on the part of both therapist and client.

We learned new skills and honed in on the important ones. It felt as though my counseling skills were really being tested when first starting telehealth. On a phone call, there was an absence of facial expression and body language. On a video chat, poor internet connection or distractions disrupted the flow. I seriously doubt I am the only therapist who gets into their own head about asking the perfect therapeutic question, especially when you can’t see faces or think that (maybe?) they are frozen. One of my coworkers sagely said during a staff meeting, “Just talk with them.” Such a simple thing to do, set aside the seriousness and do what we do best: talk and listen. 

We have new aches and pains, and I don’t want to make light of any therapist who might have chronic health issues, but who knew the amount of physical discomfort that would come with working remotely? In my work office, I sit in a chair for almost eight hours a day and my back, hips, and shoulders noticeably objected when I changed environments. In tandem comes the eye strain and headaches that many remote workers and students struggle with. It certainly took some acceptance on my part that remote work was going to be a long-term thing to eventually invest in a new desk, chair, and some pretty snazzy blue light glasses. 

And finally, we are still in it, practicing and observing resilience as it unfolds, leaning into discomfort, and swiftly learning new routines and systems. I remember being notified of going remote and feeling a surge of stress. Sweaty, panicky, headachy stress. Practicing what I preach, I took it day-by-day, and still am. To date, in my workplace at least, we have transitioned in and out of office and telehealth multiple times, and I feel more prepared for these mini-upheavals of routine now. I have become a more resilient therapist (who is still a bit worn out, but who is now actively practicing self-care). 

A final word for fellow therapists: I won’t spout anymore therapeutic platitudes (because we have enough of those), but I will simply and sincerely say thank you. Thank you for your dedication to the work we do. Thank you for normalizing rest and self-care. Thank you for taking time off and taking care of yourself. Thank you for paving the way for a woefully needed conversation about mental health.

In the words of a good friend and colleague, Rita: “At any given moment, we are doing the best we can.”

Skylar is a mental health counselor who talks about self-care as the foundation of a prosperous life.

Image via Unsplash

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