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How to Practice Self-Care as a Therapist

Ever heard your supervisor or colleague tell you to remember to self-care? I can’t stress enough how important self-care is for our profession. Vicarious trauma is a thing and can lead to burn out. Follow this list (with a grain of salt, I’m new to the field after all, what do I know?) before burnout happens. Many things on this list are things we tell our clients to do because we care about their well-being. Our mental and physical health is important too. If there are things you don’t like on this list or things you cannot do, find other ways that work for you to self-care.

1. Unplug.

It’s hard enough to sit with the pain of individuals every day, let alone seeing the pain of the world through social media and the news. It’s easy to become addicted to our phone and computer screens. If you are noticing that you are checking too frequently and you are constantly feeling the heaviness of the world, it’s OK to check out. Unplug and take a break. Delete your Facebook and your Twitter app from your phone or delete your account altogether.

2. Get in Nature.

Surround yourself with nature, whether it’s in the form of going on a hike or just putting plants in your office. The fresh air and the connection to nature will help ground you. Nature has positive effects on our overall well-being. Not only will you feel grounded and at peace, but you will be able to see the world from a bird’s eye view and gain a new perspective. We are stuck in our offices all day so get an easy plant to take care of, open a window during nice days if you have one, and if you can, take your clients on a walk or just sit by a tree with them. Not only will you benefit from this, but so will your clients. Remember to surround yourself with nature outside of the workplace. Get plants for your home too, or even buy yourself flowers sometimes.

3. Pets.

Sometimes having something to take care of such as a furry animal can bring us so much joy and fulfillment. Get a pet, or volunteer to pet sit for a friend. Have that furry baby to cuddle when you get home from work. Take that natural nurturing personality trait you have to be a therapist and put that energy into taking care of something that will give you all the love back. Pets don’t care if you aren’t perfect and they make great therapists themselves! Sure they don’t always know what you are saying, but they make great listeners.

4. Cooking/Gardening.

If you are the type who likes to stick a frozen pizza in the oven and call that cooking, that’s OK too. Eating pizza from a box is self-care too! If you do enjoy cooking, I recommend finding recipes and making meals from scratch. It’s a way to distract yourself from stress and put your energy into something that will turn into a beautiful masterpiece you can eat! Garden and pick vegetables from your garden for cooking. Eating healthy is a form of self-care. Ever heard of the saying, “you are what you eat?” No, you’re not a donut, but you may notice you feel sluggish. Feeding our bodies healthy nutrients can help your body feel good and clear your mind. But constantly feeding ourselves junk will catch up with our stress and can lead to burn out. With that said, I still give you permission to eat that chocolate bar and drink that glass of wine too. You deserve it.

5. Exercise.

We tell our clients to exercise because we know it releases endorphins, so we should practice what we preach. Find a form of exercise that does not feel like a chore. If you like to go to the gym, great! Do that. If the gym isn’t your thing, find something else active to do. You can hike, dance, yoga, swim, ride your bike, etc. Not much of an active person? Our bodies still need to move to release that stress, but there are small things you can do to get moving. Park far away from the office, ride your bike to work, stand while you take notes, stretch between sessions, go for a walk when you have a break, walk around the block when you get home and/or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

6. Vacation.

It’s in our nature as therapists to be selfless. It’s OK to be selfish sometimes. Everyone needs a vacation from time to time. It doesn’t have to be a big vacation — a short road trip will do. Taking a break from our work is important. We can’t give a quality of care if we don’t take care of ourselves. Clients benefit from our self-care.

7. Saying “no” sometimes — boundary setting.

It’s OK to say no to our clients, our friends and our families sometimes. You can cancel plans to take care of yourself. Setting healthy boundaries with our clients models to them what a healthy relationship looks like. Trust your ethical and self-care needs here. Our friends and our families will understand or just have to deal if you tell them no. If you are stressed about finances, you can say no to brunch with your bestie. If you are an introvert and being around clients all day exhausts you, you can take alone time from other people in your life.

8. Having therapist and non-therapist friends.

It’s important to have a group of people who are therapists, who understand that part of you. We need advice and support from our colleagues. Sometimes like in community mental health, management is stressful and we need to rely on each other for support. Within HIPAA of course, we need to vent to our colleagues about clients. It’s not healthy to keep our feelings and worries about clients to ourselves. It’s also important to have friends who are not therapists, who we can take of our therapist masks off with. We need people in our lives who see our other masks. We are not just therapists but we are humans outside of our work life. Do not be your friend’s therapist. That is not your job and goes along with setting healthy boundaries. I’m not saying don’t listen to your friend’s problems, but put your therapist interventions and therapist voice away. Laugh and go to the movies with your friends. Be someone completely different who you can’t be at work.

9. Hobbies.

Continue to do something you love or pick up a new hobby. I heard gardening is relaxing. Try something you have always wanted to do — something you make excuses for. Take risks. Skydive (if you want)!

10. Music.

Do I need to say more? On my way to and from work, I like to blast my favorite tunes. It helps with my anxieties and to decompress after work. If you are musically talented, pick up an instrument! It forces our brains to refocus. Sing and dance like no one is watching.

11. Writing.

I am obviously biased to this one. It can be in the form of a blog or letters. Writing helps get all the things stuck in our brain out. Writing is different than just talking. The act of writing itself is rewarding and seeing your thoughts on paper is relieving. If you don’t want to write because all the paperwork you have to keep up with is getting to you, stretch out your fingers. Our fingers need to stretch too.

12. Appreciating the little things — being grateful.

So much of the time, we forget how lucky we are. Name five things you are grateful for when you are stuck in negativity. Have rituals such as getting coffee from your favorite café each morning. Little things, like just having coffee, are reliable and provides structure, but also lessons our anxieties. Find little things you can do each day to be happy. Be grateful for the little things in life, like a smile from a baby or cat videos. But also be grateful for the big things. Celebrate your accomplishments and successes!

13. Dating.

Therapists date too. Whether you are single, married or in a relationship, have a date night or ask someone new on a date. It doesn’t have to be expensive or classy. Having fun with our loved ones releases the oxytocin to feel loved and important.

14. Meditate.

Meditate on your own or with an app. Do yoga! Do I need to say more? As therapists, we know what meditating does for us.

15. Sex.

Yes, I said it. Sex helps me feel connected when maybe I feel disconnected with other parts of my life. Sex releases pent up energy. Sex is fun and exciting. Sex gets me out of my head and more into my body. And you don’t even need another person. For me, my vibrator is a great self-care tool too. Masturbation is healthy and a form of self-love.

16. Netflix binge.

Watch a full season of “Stranger Things” or rewatch “The Office” in one night. Get away from real life and get into the drama of characters who don’t exist. This is also a good go-to if you’re too exhausted to do anything else or to even thinking of doing anything else. Surrender to that couch!

17. Cleaning.

This one doesn’t sound very fun, but cleaning and decluttering can clear our minds and provide an environment that is welcoming. It also makes us feel productive, especially if you’re not one to sit still when you are stressed. Go through stuff you have had for years and donate or get rid of it! Do you really need that toaster from the 80s? Reorganize your closet or cabinets. Do laundry. Wearing clean clothes is refreshing and renewing. Take a relaxing shower or bath.

18. Laughing

Laughing is the best medicine! Read the comics or see a local comedian in your area to go see. Watch those stupid ridiculous rom-coms. Watch those videos of animals being silly. Create laughter in the workplace. Be silly and sassy with each other. A relaxing environment at work and at home is important for self-care.

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Unsplash photo via Alex Blăjan