It was early and the sun was just peeking through the bedroom window. I begrudgingly dragged my exhausted body out of bed and hastily shoved my eye mask onto my forward.
As I padded barefoot across the just sun-warmed hardwood towards the kitchen, I found myself sighing deeply. My eye mask sat crookedly on my forehead, my sleep shirt was inside out and askew, and my brain was feeling fuzzy around the edges. I’m all for hard work, but I was starting to feel crispy and dried up from burn out.
Burn out is like an evil nasty virus; once it is in your system it spreads and multiplies, making you feel horrible, and it’s contagious! Negativity begets negativity.
As I pour my hot water for tea, wishing I had some coffee on hand instead, I picked though my recent interactions with colleagues to find the source of this nasty burnout bug. I was surprised to realize my source was a conversation I had 4 weeks ago with a colleague who only calls me when she needs to unload a steamy pile of negative muck.
The conversation was short, my boundaries were strong, but a few strong statements from her stuck in my brain – like muck on the bottom of your shoes.
Pausing to blow on my, just shy of boiling tea, my mind wondered how I could possibly succumb to the negative thoughts and draining feelings. My entire point of view as a therapist is built upon the premise that banishing negative thoughts will ultimately change your life, so how did I allow these nasty tidbits, from a conversation 4 weeks ago, to set up camp in my brain.
Usually I have excellent self-care; I use EFT to manage my emotions and rid myself of negative thoughts and feelings, participate in activities that are “energy rich” (running/kickboxing/yoga, meditation, reading, creating jewelry, playing with our puppy), and I eat well (not totally clean, but very healthy). Then it dawned on me, I have not taken an actual vacation or real break from work in months and when I audited my self-care routines, I found I participated in a higher number of “energy sucking” activities before I had the conversation with my Negative Nelly colleague. These were my “energy sucking” activities, yours will likely be different; HIPAA research and paperwork, watching political commentary type shows, and booking meetings/appointments too close together. It’s like visiting a sick friend when your immune system is compromised…you will likely get sick too!
As mental health professionals, especially those of us in private practice, we often neglect our own self-care and our need to escape every once in a while. It doesn’t mean we must take a 3 week vacation, out the country, to unwind and restore our energy. There are plenty of things we can do to restore our energy in the interim (quickly), some that we can incorporate into our daily routines, and others that require a little longer planning (like a true vacation!). So before you catch the burn out bug, know what your energy stores look like before embarking on a negative conversation and jumpstart you energy stores before you meet with a challenging client. Quick pick me ups:
- Have you discovered your energy rich activities? These are the activities that not only increase your happy hormones (serotonin, dopamine, etc…), but also decrease your stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, etc…). These activities replenish and increase your natural energy stores (physically, psychologically, emotionally, etc..). The higher your energy stores, the less vulnerable you are to the negative thoughts and feelings that bombard us on a daily basis.
- Know what soothes your soul – if I have time, I will take a bath – if not, and I’m at work, it is a great cup of organic Pu’erh tea and bowl of fresh juicy berries
- Find a patch of green or a local park where you can take off your shoes (this immediately decreases stress and helps you connect directly with the earth’s energy).
- Find a quiet space and take 5 minutes to meditate.
- Take a power nap (isn’t that why we have comfortable couches in our office ?).
- Instead of eating your lunch in the usual place – take it outside or find a nook somewhere in your office building where you can take a break.
Those requiring a bit of planning (think of it like adding vitamins to your daily routine):
- Pre-record an imagery based meditation you can play later when you need an immediate energy boost.
- Implement an exercise program or at least plan to walk on your lunch hour a few times a week, if not every day.
- Locate a museum, gallery (free), or exhibit space (typically free) that is close to your office. Most large museums have inexpensive yearly memberships, and usually come with nice discounts/perks. Many offer unique cafes/restaurants or spaces to eat your lunch.
- Locate your nearest public library – a free, peaceful, and quiet place to escape.
- Decrease the artificial tools you may use to dissociate or disconnect (alcohol, drugs, online games, watching tv, etc…).
- Incorporate “energy rich” activities into your daily routines, over time you will notice the difference in your energy stores.
Long term planning:
- Do you have a favorite spot you can visit over a weekend?
- Are there any interesting workshops being held at your favorite retreat(s) (Omega, Spirit Rock, Esalen)?
- Plan a longer vacation or break from work (visiting family over the holidays does not count).
- If you have children or pets, plan a break that only includes your partner, family, and or friends who don’t require a lot of energy (emotional or physical).
Lauren Somers holds a LPCC in the State of California, a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology, certification in EFT (energy psychology), and over 19 years of experience in delivering counseling to adolescents and adults in individual and group settings. She hosts a private practice in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area where she endeavors to understand her client’s story and weaves the traditional therapeutic modalities with a bit of shamanic healing, energy psychology, and mindfulness to bring about growth and healing.
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