Therapy is Hard Work & the Pandemic Made it Worse
The work you do requires a lot. The last two years have been endlessly challenging. Your job was already hard. ‘Self-care” was a normal part of your routine. Getting enough sleep, eating well, enjoying hobbies or leisure helped you stay in balance between work and life.
Unfortunately, the pandemic changed everything. What was once normal about our field, the demands of client work, and how to care for your own needs are completely different.
Newcomers to mental healthcare do not have the old days as a reference point. But they will know soon how challenging it is to help clients in a post-pandemic world where loss and grief intensify the hardest parts of life.
It’s no wonder that burnout is part of our ‘new normal’ in 2022. If you’re a therapist reading this blog - I don’t need to define burnout. You are much too familiar with the loss of meaning, physical exhaustion, irritation, restlessness, and profound sense of disconnection that comes with being stretched to your limit.
Supervision is Not Just a Requirement
Before the pandemic, supervision was a misunderstood and under-appreciated resource. It was most often associated with graduate students, interns, and associates who require oversight before achieving their status as an “independently licensed” therapist. Soon after receiving their license from the state, therapists will stop supervision entirely, or attend sessions infrequently.
Speciality supervision may be a requirement for those who pursue speciality training or additional credentials.
Basically, it was a requirement for those who needed it. It certainly wasn’t something people thought of when asked, “What is your favorite type of self-care? Rest, relaxation, and even personal therapy is what everyone looked for when the stress of work became too much to handle.
3 Ways Supervision Helps You
Supervision is a crucial holding space for any therapist, regardless of background, training, and skill level. It is a powerful resource that supports therapists as they do the demanding and artful work of therapy. I have seen therapists learn, recover, and truly blossom with the support of a trusted, and experienced supervisor. When it comes to burnout, supervision offers three very specific types of help.
01. Emotional Release & Resourcing: Research tells us that when feelings get ignored or ‘stuck’ you are vulnerable to burnout. You feel so many things in response to your clients' stories. And there is one big reason why the overabundance of feelings gets stuck! There simply isn’t enough time in the day to give your feelings the attention they need.
Imagine a typical day - client sessions, writing quick notes, getting a snack, calling back that psychiatrist, sending emails, scrolling through your phone - and then it’s time to leave the office. When you get home, you’re attending to your personal life - family time, chores, and any leisure time that may be left over. There are few moments available for you to tune into your emotional center. The next day, the cycle of stuckness repeats itself; ultimately leaving you more vulnerable to burnout or prolonging your burned-out state.
Supervision effectively disrupts this cycle by prioritizing emotional expression and reflection. Clients will often tell you that they “feel better” by simply talking to you about their problems. Supervision can provide you with the same relief. Don’t underestimate the power of being heard.
Your supervisor also acts as a witness to your emotional experience. Accurate and compassionate feedback in response to your human feelings will renew your energy. There is nothing that truly rivals this element of human connection in supervision. It’s a highly valuable resource of emotional attunement.
02. Embodied Intervention: When it comes to burnout, ‘stuckness’ is not only emotional, but physical. Scientific research tells us that the natural “stress cycle” of a human body is crucial in understanding how burnout happens and how it resolves.
If a person is allowed to cycle through the physiological cues their body gives during a stressful event - they are less likely to become burned out. And, they may heal from burnout by intentionally moving through the “stress cycle” through exercise (or other physical activity), artistic expression, and receiving support from another person. Unfortunately, if they’re not allowed to complete a full stress cycle, the stress gets ‘stuck’ inside their body.
You might not readily think of therapy as stressful to your body. Let me explain.
Therapy is not simply listening and nodding along to a story. Therapy is extremely challenging, like any position in healthcare. A normal day offers myriad opportunities to experience stress. In the span of a few hours, you can listen to the retelling of a traumatic event, coach a client through a panic attack, and de-escalate an argument in a family session. All the while, you’re performing the duties of your role and not completing the stress cycle.
Supervision also effectively metabolizes unprocessed stress responses that are stuck in the body. It is not uncommon to release emotions in an obviously physical way. Sighing, crying, laughing, and expressing anger are all ways the body processes emotions in supervision.
03. Practical & Impartial Guidance: Thinking clearly is very, very difficult when you’re burned out. Thinking critically is an even bigger demand on a brain that is completely overloaded from physical and emotional fatigue.
A supervisor is extremely helpful in acting as a ‘third party’ between you and your client work. Their perspective is one step removed from your direct connection. They evaluate your client’s case with a neutral mind, and can think critically about the case without the burden of brain fog.
The practical feedback a supervisor provides is also very helpful for a therapist who is trying to recover from burnout. You need the help of another person to do all of the mental labor required to effectively serve your clients. A good supervisor will help you conceptualize your cases from various perspectives, evaluate different interventions, weigh-in on important shifts in treatment, and track overall progress.
Ending the Epidemic of Burnout
A while ago, I wrote this in a journal: "It is my sincere hope and earnest aim to eradicate burnout in my lifetime." You might read that and scoff, or skeptically ask, “How will she do that?”. I understand. I'm even a bit incredulous when I read that statement to myself. Don’t worry - I’m not that foolish, only a bit reckless, and very strong-willed.
And I also understand the problem. I know the problem of burnout is systemic, not singular. I will not single handedly end burnout like the hero of the story.
Instead, I count myself among the collective of supervisors who faithfully believe in supervision. They know the power of this resource, and they tend it like a sacred fire. Those people are my psychological kinfolk.
Instead, I count myself among the collective of therapists who wholeheartedly participate in supervision. They ask for help without fear, and the spell of shame is broken. They are my professional family of choice.
Eradicating burnout depends on us working together.