Counselor stress has become a topic of increasing concern after America’s mental health crisis spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. Counselors work with individuals, couples, families, and communities to improve mental health and discuss topics like substance abuse, depression, relationships, stress, suicide, and other mental health concerns.
In the United States, nearly one in five American adults live with mental illness and stress is among the greatest challenges. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) 2020 report, the societal upheaval spurred by the global pandemic led to added stress:
- Nearly eight in ten adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a “significant source of stress in their life.”
- Two in three adults (67%) say they have experienced “increased stress over the course of the pandemic.”
12 Top Self-care Strategies to Reduce Counselor Stress
Counselors are no exception to the added stress of the pandemic. Mental health professionals must use self-care strategies to mitigate counselor stress and prevent burnout so they can continue to help others address their mental health. This blog explores the top 12 self-care strategies to reduce counselor stress.
1. Start With Your Why
Living with a sense of purpose boosts resilience. Ross Ellenhorn, Ph.D., a sociologist and psychologist, and author of the best-selling book How We Change says,
“Your sense of being valuable to others, your experience that you have a purpose in life, and whether you feel you have a network of people supporting you … these, among many other social resources, have a powerful effect on your tenacity in the face of difficult odds.”
One study found that having a life purpose or sense of meaning in life was linked to health and life expectancy. People who had a strong life purpose lived longer than those who did not.
As a counselor, reaffirming your calling is a self-care strategy that could add years to your life. If you’re experiencing counselor stress, spend five minutes every morning reminding yourself why you decided to become a counselor. Write down your “why” and list the contributions you have made to others in the process.
2. Eat a Balanced Diet
Food is fuel. Eating nutrient-dense foods will help you boost your energy levels and reduce counselor stress. A balanced diet is a diet that consists of a variety of nutrients from diversified sources. You can also consume high-energy foods to help alleviate stress.
The following foods have been proven to promote energy levels throughout the day:
- Fatty fish
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy green vegetables
Experts have also determined that the Mediterranean Diet is the best diet for combating stress. In a recent study, middle-aged monkeys fed the Mediterranean diet were more resilient to stress than those fed the Western diet.
The Mediterranean Diet typically includes primarily vegetables, fruits, grain, and nuts and seeds. The diet uses olive oil as a primary fat source, limits dairy products, and includes fish as a main source of protein.
If you’re interested in reducing counselor stress, start by consuming three regular meals per day to balance blood sugar and increase your intake of nutrient-dense foods like kale, fatty fish, sweet potatoes, and blueberries, to name a few.
3. Sleep 7-8 Hours A Night
Adults need more than seven hours of restful sleep per night to optimize their health and well-being. Consistent sleep deprivation contributes to higher stress. Studies found that sleep loss impacts a person’s reactivity to stressful events. This means that individuals who have not clocked in over seven hours of sleep per night on average become stressed more easily.
How can mental health professionals get more restful sleep to reduce counselor stress? If you’re experiencing counselor stress and struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep, you can implement the following strategies:
- Increase exposure to sunlight during the day. Natural sunlight exposure signals to your body the difference between daytime and nighttime.
- Reduce screen exposure one hour before bed. Set an alarm and put away all your screens for at least 60 minutes before you fall asleep.
- Stop consuming caffeine six hours before your bedtime.
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to create a consistent sleep schedule.
- Don’t eat late-night meals.
- Upgrade your mattress and pillow for an optimal sleeping environment.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes during the day.
- Don’t drink excessive liquids before bed.
4. Exercise to Relax
Exercise is one of the most effective tools for stress reduction. Exercise increases the production of feel-good endorphins, heightens your body’s ability to regulate stress, improves your mood, and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.
How do you start exercising when you’re busy, unmotivated, or struggle to stay consistent?
If you want to implement regular exercise to reduce counselor stress long-term, you can use the following strategies to commit to a consistent exercise routine:
- Find movement that you love. You don’t need to work out at the gym if you hate the gym. Running, boxing, swimming, hiking, and daily walks can all help reduce counselor stress.
- Set SMART goals. If you’re starting a new workout routine set SMART goals — goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited. Tracking your success will help you see the value of exercise in your life.
- Talk to an accountability partner. Find a friend, partner, or family member that shares your aspirations and encourages you to move every day.
- Go for daily walks. Turn phone calls, breaks, and boredom into daily walks. Aim to walk 10,000 steps a day and use your phone or a wearable device to track your steps.
- Break up workouts. If you can’t fit a full hour of intense workouts into the day, start with a 10-minute workout in the morning and add another 30 minutes of movement into your afternoon. Staying active throughout the day is more beneficial than being sedentary during the day and engaging in one burst of exercise.
5. Start Gratitude Journaling
Writing in a gratitude journal is proven to strengthen emotional resilience and reduce stress. A gratitude journal is a dedicated space where you list people, places, and things you are thankful for.
If you’re experiencing counselor stress and feeling overwhelmed, gratitude journaling can be done on paper or even mentally to ground you in a positive emotion.
- Select a dedicated journal in to which to write what you feel gratitude for.
- Create a framework. How many items will you write per day? Are you going to write one word or expand on each? Can you list the same things every day or do you want to think of different things you feel gratitude for regularly?
- Commit to a schedule, such as writing every morning or writing once a week.
- Take time to reflect on your list.
The most essential component of gratitude journaling is taking time to reflect on your list. Don’t just write down an item and move on to the next. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in the feelings of gratitude and love that materialize when you think of the items you have listed.
6. Make Time for Meditation
There is a Zen proverb that says,
“If you don't have time to meditate for an hour every day, you should meditate for two hours.” If successful CEOs, PhD students, and busy parents can all make time to meditate, so can you.
The Zen proverb points to the fact that if you don’t have any time left in the day for your mental health, you probably need meditation the most. A 2021 survey asked Americans why they meditate and the results found:
- 76% meditate for general wellness
- 60% meditate to improve energy
- 50% meditate to aid with memory and focus
- 29% meditate to relieve anxiety
- 22% meditate to relieve stress
- 18% meditate to relieve depression
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a specific type of meditation that was designed to alleviate stress. It was initially created to help people with chronic health problems reduce pain and is used today to help millions of people manage stress.
Maine Health released an MBSR handbook to help people apply exercises like mindful eating, body scanning, breathing exercises, and loving-kindness meditations to their daily life. If you want to reduce counselor stress, dedicate at least 20 minutes a day to practice MBSR meditation.
7. Connect with Nature
In modern times, we spend more time on our computer screens and less time outside in nature. New research has shown that spending as little as ten minutes in nature can reduce mental and physical stress. The researchers prescribed college-age students “nature therapy” and saw an improvement in mood, focus, and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate.
If counselor stress is beginning to take a toll on your mental health, drive to a nearby hiking trail and wander through the forest, plan a getaway to a place surrounded by greenery, or go for a walk around a local park. You can even bring plants into your home or start a garden to reduce stress.
8. Prioritize Family and Friend Time
Counselors and therapists lead busy lives. Mental health professionals must make time for social support through family and friends. Isolation can make counselor stress worse and research shows that maintaining a network of friends and family can:
- Improve your ability to cope with stressful situations
- Promote better mental health long-term
- Enhance self-esteem
- Lower cardiovascular risks (ex. lowering blood pressure)
If you’re not used to frequent social interactions start small by scheduling weekly phone or video calls. This is imperative during the global pandemic when individuals are following guidelines to social distance and limit gatherings.
9. Connect With Supportive Colleagues
Counselor stress is best understood by other counselors. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, reach out to other mental health professionals for advice on how they use self-care to mitigate burnout. If you don’t already have one, seek a mentor.
Mentors offer advice regarding your business life and career but also offer valuable life advice from their individual experiences. As a counselor, try to connect with a professional who has many years of experience or an individual you look up to in your organization.
Professionals with a history in mental health can offer insightful advice about how to manage counselor stress and these impactful people become a part of your support network.
10. Avoid Zoom Fatigue
The coronavirus pandemic has created a surge in the use of video platforms like Zoom and people are experiencing “Zoom fatigue”. Zoom fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that may result from frequent virtual connecting.
Psychology Today compiled a list of ways to prevent Zoom fatigue and prevent burnout from high-intensity screen time.
- Phone in for meetings when possible to avoid screen fatigue.
- Stop scheduling back-to-back Zoom meetings.
- Set a timer throughout the day to remind you to get up and walk around.
- Take notes on paper when you can.
- Separate your home office space from your living space to establish a divide between work and life.
11. Optimize Your Environment
Separating your work environment from your living space encourages work-life balance. The global pandemic has resulted in more people working from home and socializing on their computers through virtual hangouts. If you’re spending more time at home engaging in remote appointments, improving your physical space is worthwhile.
A cluttered environment can increase counselor stress. Start by organizing your closet, purging items you no longer use and committing to a weekly cleaning schedule. Invest in a comfortable office chair and an ergonomic desk setup. A standing desk could help reduce back pain by limiting the time you spend sitting.
Optimizing your environment could also be as simple as opening a window for fresh air, lighting a candle, or playing calming music to reduce stress.
12. Learn Something New
Did you know that learning new information keeps your neural pathways active and contributes to brain health? If you’re experiencing counselor stress, learning a new hobby, language or skill could help you take your mind off of work and channel your energy into different pursuits.
You could also enroll in continued studies that are relevant to your field, like a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, to learn about counseling in a specialized area such as community mental health, alcohol and drug programs, crisis intervention, or private practices.
Choosing to expand your knowledge as a counselor circles back to point number one “start with your why”. The more educated you are about mental health prevention and management, the greater your chances of improving the lives of individuals and the greater community.
Treating your career as a vocation and recognizing your positive contribution to others is a long-term strategy for reducing counselor stress and boosting resilience.
Read more of Walsh online's top counseling blogs below: