Learning to Hold Yourself to Hold Your Clients: Essential Self Care for the Busy Therapist

Being a therapist can be one of the most rewarding, yet demanding jobs out there. It can certainly be a rollercoaster ride! From the positive feelings when your client starts to make progress in therapy, to the stress of managing risk in clients and the incredible amount of work required to support a client through the therapy process. If you don’t take responsibility for managing and resourcing yourself it can very quickly lead to exhaustion and burn out! 

As therapists, our first and primary concern is to our clients. We often feel like it is our sole responsibility to support clients through therapy and into full recovery. Of course, putting our clients first is very important, however often as therapists, we can completely forget about our own wellbeing and needs as we are entirely focused on the wellbeing of our clients – not to mention the hours and hours of compliance, treatment planning, reporting, session notes and paperwork that is an essential part of the job. 

It’s like that announcement made on a plane while the crew is demonstrating the safety procedures, “In the case of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will fall from above your head. Please attach your own mask before helping children or those travelling with you.” Unless we attach our own oxygen masks and prioritize time to ‘fill our cups’ (as I like to say) we cannot keep sustainably doing the hard work it takes to support individuals through their own difficulties.

Today we’re going to discuss the importance of self-care as a therapist and how looking after yourself can have a significantly positive impact on your clients, your family life and yourself. Prioritising our own self-care is our greatest responsibility – to keep our cups full enough to do the necessary work to help our clients progress and recover. 

What counts as self-care?

Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Although it’s a simple concept in theory, it’s something we very often overlook. Self-care activities don’t have to be big tasks like going for a 5 kilometre run, or meditating for an hour. They can be anything from listening to your favourite song, taking a moment to breathe and refocus, writing down or thinking of 3 things you are grateful for that day, or making the effort to schedule some time for yourself. I actually schedule self care appointments throughout the week in my calendar, just like I do with my client sessions – then I have committed time to fill my own cup! 

In a society that seems to wear exhaustion and busyness as a badge of honour, it can be a radical idea to commit to growing and nurturing yourself. Indulging in self-care isn’t selfish at all, but essential! By putting on our oxygen masks first and making time for ourselves, we can help and support those around us so much more than if we were scrambling around with no oxygen, no energy, and no capacity. Self-care also increases our tolerance for stress, helps us become better at setting healthy boundaries, and rewires our brains through mindful practices to become more integrated, empathic, creative and calm.

Why is self-care important?

As therapists, we play an integral role in supporting our clients to regulate their emotions and handle stress. That can be very emotionally and mentally demanding for us. If we don’t take the time to recharge our batteries, get support for our own past and trauma histories, or recognise and regulate our own emotions, then we can’t be at our best for our clients. To be a patient, empathic, caring, and professional therapist, we need to take time to love and care for ourselves. 

I feel it is absolutely essential that therapists are also engaged in therapy so that there is someone to hold them through their own triggers, trauma history and vicarious trauma and stress experienced by people in the frontlines of helping professions.  You can only take your client as deep as you have gone yourself. It doesn’t mean that you need to have experienced exactly the situations your clients have but you need to know what it feels like to confront your shadow self, sit with your uncomfortable emotions and vulnerabilities, tolerate distress and the whole range of feelings.  

Your client needs you to be the best physiological anchor you can be for their nervous systems.  If you can remain in your zone of regulation and window of tolerance, and model what it looks like/feels like to transition back when you get overwhelmed (eg using grounding techniques such as hand on heart, deep breaths, grounding into chair, etc), you will teach your client to do the same and thus expand their regulatory capacity.

As human beings, we are social animals, dependent on each other to survive.  We attach, coregulate each other and attune via our mirror neuron systems. This is your superpower as a therapist – building our own body felt sense (becoming aware of the sensations and triggers occurring physically in our own bodies) and learning how to manage these internal states and activations.  Through this process of your own regulation, you become a stronger, more grounded co-regulator for your clients.  

How is self-care beneficial for delivering therapy?

By taking one step toward better self-care as a therapist, you’ll soon recognise how beneficial that small change can be for your physical and mental state, as well as the mental state of your clients (who can sometimes mirror and trigger our own emotional states through transference and counter-transference!). 

One of the main benefits for our clients, when we practice self-care, is that by modelling healthy behaviour we are teaching our clients that it’s important to prioritise self-care. This can teach them that things like healthy eating, self-reflection, journaling, mindfulness, exercise, and healthy relationships are important and beneficial for overall health. 

The first step is allowing yourself permission to start making self-care a priority. What could you do today to practice self-care? Some peace and quiet? Time to yourself? Reading a book? Listening to music? Going for a walk? Take a minute now to recognise what you need today and give yourself permission to take the first step toward more self-care.

A month of self-care activities – The celebration of YOU month

We thought what better way to get started with a step towards more self-care than with a month of self-care activities! We have designed a template for you that you can download here.

These activities could be anything such as:

  • Journalling
  • Starting the day with positive affirmations
  • Keeping a gratitude list (or using an app)
  • Listening to music
  • Having a bath
  • Having a shower
  • Make yourself a nice drink
  • Watching a TV program/film
  • Doing some colouring 
  • Doing a word search or puzzle
  • Listening to a podcast on your way to pick up the kids from school
  • Planning a one on one date with your child
  • Going for a walk
  • Having a massage
  • Buying fresh flowers
  • Dancing around the house
  • Doing yoga and deep breathing
  • Burning a candle
  • Speaking to your friends 
  • Speaking to your family
  • Doing a mindfulness meditation

These self-care activities can take as little or as much time as you would like, but let’s try to do at least two a day (morning and night), even if it only takes 2-5 minutes. 

At Building Better Brains Australia we have been incorporating self-care as part of our crazy busy lives so much more the last year. We have resourced ourselves physically by spending daily time rocking gently in our egg chair (this is a very powerful calmer for the brainstem and nervous system). 

We have also used a weighted blanket on our bed which has assisted with helping me shut down my racing brain and nervous system at night and have a restful sleep. 

I have been practicing daily mindfulness meditation – sometimes just for 5 minutes in the morning or a few times throughout the day if I get the chance. There are lots of great meditations for free on youtube and this year I plan to create some self-care ones of my own to share with you all!

I make sure I start the day looking after my health with my supplements for better brain and emotional health and a green smoothie packed with protein powder to give me the energy I need to keep firing!  I also include probiotics as part of my daily routine for better gut health (which is also linked to our mental functioning via the vagus nerve – more on that in another post).

Tony and I have committed to two screen-free nights per week where we can have lounge dinner picnics and spend some time talking, reflecting and planning and maybe even exchanging foot massages (without constant interruptions from kidlets) LOL!

I have a free app on my phone called Gratitude where you can list the positive highlights of the day and reflect on those things that you felt grateful for. You can also add photos so it creates a visual diary and reflection of the year. Very cool! 

Prioritising the space for pauses allows us to become more present, connected, creative, reflective and mindful as therapists…and as human beings.  It allows us to grow ourselves (and our own capacity) to grow our clients more effectively and sustainably!

We hope you can do the same! Let us know in the comments and on social media how you do! 

Working Together We Can Build Better Brains!

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