Whilst it is the job of mental healthcare practitioners to care for their patients, it is equally as important that they look after themselves. Managing self-care as a psychologist, counselor or therapist is often a task that is pushed to the side. Providers lead extremely busy lives, and it can be hard to find time for extra self-care activities, in addition to maintaining a good work/life balance. Nevertheless, to be productive and effective at your job, you must be looking after your mental health. We understand that managing mental health is an experience that varies for everyone, but there are helpful strategies you can utilize to optimize your mindset. In this guide, we’re going to outline some of the key background information regarding why staying mentally fit is so crucial for therapists, before offering some suggestions to help you achieve sustainable and positive mental health.
Why is it important for therapists to stay mentally fit
Just like physical fitness, maintaining mental fitness is a key contributing factor to leading a happy and healthy life. As I’m sure you know, achieving mental fitness strengthens specific neural pathways and consequently optimizes positive emotions over negative emotions. General effects of mental fitness include feeling more confident, assured, and energetic. And whilst this is the type of information that you are likely telling your patients, you must listen to your advice for several different reasons:
Improved stress management: Therapists are under a lot of pressure. Not only are they usually extremely busy, but they are frequently required to listen to the worries, fears, and general negative life experiences of their patients. Understandably, this type of information is often very difficult to hear. To avoid burnout and becoming too emotionally involved in your work, you should consistently focus on improving your mental fitness.
Perform better at your job: In addition to mental fitness allowing you to improve your work/life balance, it can also be highly influential concerning your job performance. Having good mental fitness is related to better cognitive function and an improved ability to concentrate and rationalize decisions. As such, you will be able to focus more clearly on treating your patients appropriately and improving your professional skills.
What are the benefits of staying mentally fit for therapists and counselors
There is a wide range of benefits that arise from staying mentally fit for therapists and counselors, including the following:
- Response over reaction: When you are speaking to and treating a patient, you must be rational and exercise emotional regulation. Maintaining mental fitness has been shown to improve these functions, allowing you to prioritize response over reaction.
- Therapeutic awareness: Improving mental fitness allows therapists to gain a higher awareness of the therapeutic process. They can apply this knowledge to their patients, and improve their empathy and understanding of client experiences.
- Confidence: Mental fitness is positively correlated with improved self-confidence. As a therapist, you must be confident in the treatments and interventions you recommend to patients, as it makes them feel reassured and comfortable with your abilities.
- Be more present: Good mental fitness leads to a healthy work/life balance, which in turn allows therapists to be more present when they are with their patients. Engaging in self-care activities allows you to compartmentalize different areas of your life so that when you are at work, you can solely focus on the issues at hand.
- Avoid burnout: Working on your mental fitness is additionally associated with avoiding burnout. As we discussed, therapists have to deal with a lot of emotionally taxing information. Prioritizing time for self-care activities and maintaining positive mental fitness will ensure the workload doesn’t become too burdensome, allowing you to avoid burnout.
What are the symptoms of lowered mental fitness in therapists?
The symptoms of a lowered mental fitness can vary between individuals, but the following indicators are fairly common:
- Exhaustion: Just like when you physically over-exert yourself, lowered mental fitness leads to exhaustion. You may find yourself struggling to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, feeling tired at work, and having low productivity levels. As a therapist, this may manifest in performing poorly at work and being unable to focus on your patients.
- Procrastination: Although everyone has off days at work, excessively procrastinating your work could be a sign of lowered mental fitness. It is important that therapists find a healthy work/life balance so they can come into the clinic feeling energized and ready to see each of their patients. High levels of procrastination can make completing even simple tasks very difficult, and you may find your workflow piling up extremely quickly.
- Headaches: As a therapist, I’m sure you know that lowered mental fitness can sometimes result in physical symptoms. Not working on your mental health can lead to prominent headaches that prevent your ability to complete day-to-day tasks, and impair your productivity.
- Lowered cognitive function: Poor mental fitness can result in forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. This will have a fairly significant impact on your ability to work as a therapist, as you may find yourself struggling to create effective treatment plans for your patients.
What should therapists do to stay mentally fit?
Whilst there are various negative consequences of poor mental fitness, it isn’t all bad news. As long as you put in the time and effort to focus on maintaining your mental health, there’s no reason why it should impact your day-to-day life. Some of the best ways a therapist can stay mentally fit include:
Meditation has been shown to have many positive effects. It allows you to find new perspectives on stressful events and compartmentalize different areas of your life.
Make exercise a part of your routine
Exercising regularly is one of the best ways you can improve your mental fitness. Not only does it provide you with a healthy activity that is external to work, but it is also fantastic for your physical wellbeing and general health.
Eat and drink smart
Making the right decisions for your health also involves food and water. Drinking around 3L of water a day and eating healthily will improve your physical wellbeing, whilst also assisting your sleeping patterns.
Be aware of your bodily reactions
As we mentioned, having poor mental fitness can result in physical symptoms. To regulate your emotional responses, you must be self-aware of your bodily reactions. When you notice you are feeling especially tired or having frequent headaches, it might be a good time to adjust your routine and spend more time on self-care activities.
Make it a point to spend time in nature
Although going to the gym is a good option when it comes to regular exercise, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of being in nature. Spending time in a natural environment can have a calm and relaxing effect on your mental and physical mindset, allowing you to reset before returning to work.
Spend time with friends and family
Spending quality time with friends and family is essential to having healthy mental fitness. Dedicating specific times each week to see your loved ones will help you to separate your work life from your home life, as well as ensure you are maintaining healthy relationships.
Take a vacation from time to time
Whilst achieving your professional goals is undoubtedly an important aspect of life, taking a vacation can be equally rewarding. Everyone deserves a break from their work, and sometimes going away is the only way this can be properly achieved - and don’t worry, your job will still be there when you return!
Examples for staying mentally fit
When you begin to engage in regular activities to bolster your mental fitness, you should start seeing certain results. Although these may differ between individuals, having good mental fitness can look like:
- Establishing boundaries (and sticking to these): The most obvious evidence of having an unhealthy work/life balance is when boundaries start to blur. Conversely, good mental fitness often means having firm boundaries. This may mean not working when you are at home or switching your phone off for a couple of hours every night.
- Exploring new interests: Whilst routine can be good, taking the time to explore new interests is highly indicative of good mental fitness. You should feel comfortable branching out into new areas, and the possibility of unfamiliar territory should be exciting rather than threatening.
- Inner reflection: One of the best effects of engaging in routine self-care activities is the impact it has on your ability to reflect. You should be consistently reflecting on goals and targets, and not feeling excessively pressured if/when these haven’t been achieved. Remember that your goals don’t have to be solely career-oriented; it is just as important to spend time focusing on your personal and home life as it is on your work life.
- Maintaining your community: The relationships that you have in both your professional and personal life should be a foundation point for you. These are the people that you should be able to lean into when things get tough, so fostering and maintaining these relationships should always be a key priority.
Maintaining mental fitness whilst working as a therapist can be difficult. Not only are you frequently exposed to troubling information, but your schedule is likely consistently busy. In order to achieve a healthy work/life balance and continue performing well as a therapist, you must dedicate time and effort to prioritizing your mental fitness. As you have seen in this guide, working on your mental fitness may mean eating better, exercising more, starting meditation, or spending time with your family and friends - whichever one of these options fits best into your routine is a good place to start. It’s important to remember that there’s no right way to achieve excellent mental fitness. Self-care looks different for every therapist, and it is largely the effort to make it part of your daily routine that is the most important thing. Being a therapist is a highly rewarding job that allows you to change the lives of people in need - but you won’t be able to help your patients unless you look after yourself first!