Avoiding burnout has become nearly impossible. A lack of boundaries due to working from home, increased demands in our personal lives and endless uncertainty thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic have us feeling more depleted than ever. This results in sleep problems, loss of motivation and little energy, among many other issues. Even therapists aren’t immune.
“This has been the hardest year of my career,” said Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Working with so many individuals — and feeling the pain of their experiences — has resulted in lots of emotional and physical exhaustion for mental health experts, he said.
But it’s important to manage burnout in order to protect your overall well-being. So what do therapists do when they’re at the end of their rope? Read on for their best advice.
1. Try a new hobby
Taking on more when you’re already tapped out may sound counterintuitive, but it might just be the solution you need. Bari Schwarz, a psychotherapist based in New York City, said starting something new and exciting can help re-energize you physically and mentally.
“I’m a huge proponent of establishing new hobbies on a yearly basis,” Schwarz said. “I think it’s easy to defer to ‘reading a book’ to unwind, but after years of studying to become a therapist, sometimes that can feel like work. Rather, I consciously make efforts — took up knitting one year, joined a wine club another, got into pilates — and in doing so, I have things to look forward to in order to unwind.”
Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist in Folsom, California, also uses this tactic.
“I really enjoy planning and completing projects — building projects in particular, like a clubhouse I made several years ago for my youngest daughter,” he said. “Other therapists I know combat burnout through travel, running and cooking — they find it relaxing, socially engaging and a creative outlet.”
2. Talk to a therapist
Even therapists need therapists. Speaking to someone (or even a support group) can be extremely beneficial when it comes to managing burnout.
“Talking with other therapists is one of the most common ways therapists combat burnout,” Talley said.
“Some therapists join consultation groups, and this form of peer support is likely to be very effective in that it provides a therapist with insights on how to regain momentum,” especially when they feel like they’re stalled at work, he added.
3. Take a tech break
A lot of burnout can come from constant connection. Work emails, texts, social media and scary headlines can feel draining after a while.
“Often, I take time away from my phone and technology,” said Rachel Wright, a psychotherapist based in New York City. She said she uses her time away from sessions with clients to unplug.
Talley does this too, and couples the tech break with quality family time.
“Not just sitting in their presence with everyone staring at their own phones, but really interacting — whether it’s a BBQ, a game night, sharing stories over a cup of coffee … it’s great,” he said.
4. Get outdoors — even for just 10 or 15 minutes
Speaking of disconnecting from technology, many therapists default to going outside as a remedy for anxiety and burnout.
“Getting out into nature — even in New York City — is a big part of my burnout strategy,” said Linda Reitzes, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York. Reitzes couples this with just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation or even just deep breaths of fresh air.
Going outdoors is also a go-to for Gilliland.
“For me personally, nature and exercise are my biggest tools,” Gilliland added. “I love tinkering around in my yard, being around trees. I just go outside, garden, water plants or go for a walk.”
5. Fill your workspace with calming visual triggers.
Alfiee Breland-Noble, a clinical psychologist based in the Washington, D.C., area, said she uses elements of the beach to create a peaceful environment in her home office.
“My reset activity is usually beach-themed, as I find that this part of nature truly relaxes me,” Breland-Noble said. This is a simple activity that doesn’t require a passport stamp or thousands of dollars for a vacation.
“If I need to rest at the end of the workday, I will turn on my computer screensaver, which includes a scrolling series of oceanfront pictures from around the world,” she said. “I also play a beach-themed video that I created using recorded videos from different beaches that my family and I have visited over the past 10 years. I even purchase beach-themed candles and burn those while I sit in quiet solitude in my office practicing mindfulness meditation for 15 to 30 minutes.”
6. Find something that brings you purpose outside of work
“Therapists need to remain engaged with those aspects of their life that bring them joy, purpose and fulfillment. One hopes that their clinical practice is one of these, but if it begins to eclipse those other aspects of life that likewise bring them a sense of joy or purpose, they get into trouble,” Talley said.
Apply this same outlook to your own life. Invest in something that brings you a sense of purpose outside of the office. Maybe that’s leaning into your spirituality, volunteering for an organization or political campaign or doing a creative endeavor on your own.
Exercise has so many physical and mental health benefits — but it’s also simply just a great distraction.
“A vigorous workout requires you to focus and push yourself, and by doing so, you mentally step away from work and become thoroughly involved in the moment,” Talley said.
And there’s no need to go overboard with high-intensity interval training classes or intense sweat sessions.
“When it comes to movement, make it easy,” Gilliland said. “I’ve had a really hard time staying consistent with physical activity with COVID. Try getting outside for a walk. Even when you don’t feel like it, just move — and move doing something you love.”