My mom has worked as a nurse for over 30 years. I remember she would sometimes come home from work and talk about how she had had a doctor or nurse as a patient that day. She would always say how health-care professionals were always the worst patients, usually because they would push themselves farther and faster than they should, which resulted in a longer recovery.
I think that as therapists, we are just as guilty of holding ourselves to a “higher standard.” I have seen colleagues and friends who are therapists give out excellent advice about the importance of seeking and accepting help and practicing good self-care, only to neglect themselves and fall into a cycle of depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms, basically disregarding their own wise words.
I previously wrote an article about secondary trauma for loved ones of people who had experienced trauma. I felt it fitting to write another article for therapists, as I believe we have the potential to also experience secondary trauma. Figley (1995) defines secondary trauma as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”
Think about it: Most therapists see anywhere from 10 to 40 people per week. These people are coming to us for help with their problems, which could range from normal levels of stress to severe depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental health difficulties. We listen and offer tools they can use to overcome their challenges. They leave the sessions armed with new skills to face their lives and challenges. And what are therapists doing between sessions? I can answer from my own experience: doing notes, writing up treatment plans and assessments, returning phone calls, following up with other professionals, preparing for the next session, etc. After work, many professionals have other commitments and obligations. Life can get very busy and chaotic, and many of us consistently put ourselves last.
Therapists are just as susceptible to secondary trauma as any other person. We are not superhuman, nor do we possess mental powers that make us resilient to depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health challenges. Sometimes as therapists we forget this and, therefore, neglect ourselves. One study found that therapists who treat people with trauma are susceptible to the effects of secondary trauma, particularly if they do not have the appropriate training, support, and self-care (Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995). In my experience, this applies also to therapists who are treating other mental health issues.
So what do we do about it?
- First, make self-care a priority. Pearlman and Mac Ian (1995) emphasize the importance of self-care in order to provide the best services possible while protecting the provider’s own well-being. In my experience, I am much more effective as a therapist when I am taking excellent care of myself and being aware of any secondary trauma I might be experiencing. The basics are important here: getting enough rest, eating healthy foods, getting exercise regularly, spending time engaging in leisure activities, and spending time with loved ones, to name just a few. It basically comes down to taking our own advice and implementing the self-care skills we so often suggest to people who seek our help.
- Get support from fellow therapists through supervision or consultation. Even after the days of internship are done, we can all benefit from continued supervision and consultation. Pearlman and Mac Ian (1995) state of their study, “Therapists who work with trauma survivors need supportive, confidential, professional relationships within which they can process” the work they are doing. I have found it extremely helpful and stress relieving to consult with colleagues and to even ask for supervision at times. It can be extremely validating to learn that you are not the only therapist who sometimes struggles with secondary trauma, stress, and other emotional consequences common in the helping professions. Consultation and supervision can also help a therapist to work through challenging cases by giving a new perspective and new ideas for intervention.
- Consider furthering your training. One of the most stressful situations a therapist can encounter is having a person come to you with an issue with which you are not familiar or do not feel competent treating. Of course it is good practice to acknowledge when you are not competent to treat a specific problem, and to make a referral to a colleague who might be more skilled in that area. However, sometimes furthering your education and skill set can help to reduce anxiety and stress when it comes to treating people with unfamiliar situations. Furthering your education and training can also help you to effectively treat issues with which you are familiar. The bottom line is that getting the proper training can reduce your susceptibility to secondary trauma (Pearlman and Mac Ian, 1995).
- Consider finding your own therapist. Therapists are not an exception to the fact everyone encounters difficulties in life at times. It is extremely important that we are willing to acknowledge that we are human, and to address our own issues, whether they are from the past or present. Engaging in your own therapy will ensure that you are working through your own challenges, which will make you less susceptible to the effects of secondary trauma and more available to engage in meaningful and effective therapy with people.
In conclusion, I believe one of the most important things we can do for people who see us is to take excellent care of ourselves. If we neglect our needs and ourselves, we are not able to give all we have to others. We can set a great example of self-care and avoid being susceptible to secondary trauma if we are just willing to follow our own good advice.
- Figley, C.R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders from Treating the Traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel, p.7.
- Pearlman, L.A., Mac Ian, P.S. (1995). Vicarious Traumatization: An Empirical Study of the Effects of Trauma Work on Trauma Therapists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26 (6), pp. 558-565.
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