When you’re a licensed therapist, your days are spent providing support to patients who are experiencing the psychological impacts of trauma and distress. So it’s only natural that you take on some of this stress, and possibly, experience the side effects of exposure to such strains.
Of course, there are various career paths your qualification as a therapist can take you down. But when you’re comparing mental health counseling vs social work, the emotional labor involved is much the same. As a social worker especially, it’s essential to stay on top of your mental health. This means practicing self-care strategies to actively prevent potential burnout.
Let us take you through these strategies.
The Perils of Practicing Psychiatric Care: Therapy Work and Vicarious Trauma
When you’re constantly exposed to the distressing events your clients relay to you, it’s not uncommon to experience secondhand stress. Also referred to as vicarious trauma, this phenomenon can have disastrous effects on the psychologist in question. Most commonly, it can lead to extreme emotional burnout.
So, what are the symptoms of vicarious trauma? And perhaps more importantly, what tactics can we employ to actively avoid it?
While these vary from one individual to another, some of the common symptoms of vicarious or secondary trauma can include:
- Psychological impacts – such as experiencing intrusive thoughts, anxiety or depression, increased irritability, or a sense of irrational fear.
- Physiological side effects – such as disturbed sleep and nightmares, low energy, or conversely, stress-related hypertension.
- Emotional changes – such as wanting to withdraw from others and spend more time alone, and also, a lack of enjoyment in activities we usually find pleasurable or relaxing.
Without a doubt, experiencing any or all of these symptoms can have a drastic effect, both on our personal lives and on our performance at work. For this reason, social workers in particular need to develop tactics to prevent the onset of secondary trauma, and to remain resilient in the face of exposure to distressing information.
Remaining Resilient: How to Prevent Stress as a Social Worker
Here are some of the ways you can prevent stress as a social worker:
Set Healthy Boundaries: A Little Compartmentalizing Won’t Hurt
Traditionally, compartmentalization has had negative connotations. Often referred to by psychologists as ‘cognitive dissonance’, it can be a sign that we are not able to tackle our trauma head-on. Instead, we prefer to ‘box it up’ to deal with it at a later time.
Despite this, learning how to compartmentalize and separate your work and personal lives is not all bad. As a mental healthcare worker, you need to have some degree of separation to be able to de-stress and decompress at the end of the day. It doesn’t help to let your mind run over time and overthink the issues of your patients. Try, instead, to leave your work at the door when you leave the practice. Once you step out of your workplace environment, think of the change in the physical location as an opportunity to change your mindset. This is your time now, and you don’t need to be reliving the distressing experiences of the day over again in your mind.
Detach A Little: It’s Okay to Distance Yourself
Compartmentalizing also gives you the space to be able to distance yourself from your work. Developing a sense of emotional detachment is an important skill for a social worker. Of course, it is also vital to show empathy and genuine care for the plight of your patients. But, this does not mean you need to take on their stress. Their trauma is theirs to carry, and yours to help guide them through. Your role is to support your patients, not to experience the same disturbing side effects of their traumatic life events.
Live Your Life: Decompress and Enjoy Your Downtime
And finally, you deserve to live your life to the fullest, regardless of how stressful your job is. You could even argue that the more stressful your work is, the more important it is for you to decompress in your downtime.
Take active measures to engage in self-care – like spending time with friends and family, focusing on your physical health, or even, just doing something silly like hosting an ugly sweater party. Whatever is fun for you, and takes your mind off the stresses of your job. Your mental health will be grateful for the positive distraction.