Audrey Cleary, Ph.D. -

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Practicing what we preach: Self-care for psychologists


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Practicing what we preach: Self-care for psychologists

The following article appears in the fall 2017 newsletter for the Miami-Dade-Monroe County (FL) Psychological Association. I address psychologists, though the principles of self-care usually apply irrespective of profession.

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airplane has heard the safety briefing, with its included instruction to “Make sure your air mask is secure before helping others.” Intuitively, most people hearing this instruction understand its meaning: we need to stabilize ourselves before we can allow others to rely on us. As students and scholars of psychology, we understand that taking care of ourselves is vital to all aspects of our functioning, including providing service to others. Those of us who see patients or clients often assess how they care for themselves, and may recommend a healthy self-care regimen as a first step in treating mood disturbances, anxiety, and many other presenting concerns. Despite this awareness, many of us thrive amid professional demands that are antithetical to good self-care. We may overlook its importance in the course of a packed or overwhelming day, week, or month. We may also have complex lives with many competing personal demands on our time. It’s rare that we all share a common stressor, though we did to an extent during the hurricane season in fall 2017, which challenged the ability of many of us South Florida psychologists to maintain (and later re-establish) valued self-care routines.

The sources of stress inherent to our roles as psychologists are many. They include a) knowing firsthand about human suffering and trauma, b) shouldering a high level of responsibility for client welfare as Department of Health licensees, though without concurrent authority (as outside of inpatient settings, we cannot control what our clients do), and c) changes in the profession, such as lower reimbursement rates from managed care organizations. Early career psychologists face dilemmas regarding how we will establish our livelihoods amid a changing market. Business owners may feel the market stress of self-employment, and those in solo practice may experience isolation from colleagues. Psychologists in academic and research settings often require long hours for competitive research grants and face a tough job market for those starting out. Those of us who provide therapy know that the ability to monitor our own reactions to understand our patients or clients better can be an invaluable therapeutic tool. This ability, however, can take a toll as we experience the resultant emotions, frustrations and transferences, and are responsible for finding ways to deal with them. Most practitioners experience the death of a client to suicide or to worsening mental health difficulties. Any of us may inadvertently do things to compound the natural stress, such as overloading our work or limiting our personal time.

Good self-care includes several components, as we focus on caring for the whole person that we each are. It includes physical self-care: sleep (the October 2017 APA Monitor on Psychology includes an article documenting the importance of sleep for healthy aging), proper nutrition, hydration, physical activity and movement within one’s abilities, and attending to any chronic conditions, including by taking time away from work to do so. It also includes mental or emotional self-care: being patient with oneself, responding to mistakes in a way that allows for correction and learning then moving on, exercising one’s rights, and monitoring the ways that we talk to ourselves. (In short, we apply the compassion and caring that we have for the people we serve to ourselves.) We can add social support, including from loved ones, friends and family, though also with colleagues – seeking consultation and support related to the difficulties of the work that we do. Self-care often includes principles of responsibility management, including saying “no” when unable to deliver without undue cost to ourselves. Professionally speaking, self-care often includes allowing for time away: taking breaks during the workday, spending time outside of work with people important to you, and enjoying leisure time. 

The University of Miami, where I am a staff psychologist in the student counseling center, has been host to several recent discussions of self-care. In the UM Counseling Center’s doctoral internship program, colleagues and doctoral interns had a planned discussion of self-care. This meeting occurred during a seminar time for interns, though we recognize checking in on self-care as important to all of us. The APA Insurance Trust similarly advocates a good work-life balance as part of good risk management. They recommend that psychologists increase their use of risk management strategies during times of personal and professional transitions, in addition to building a support network, and note that those psychologists who are most able to distance themselves from work are best able to perform upon returning.

Psychologists may not yet be at the point where we need to make self-care an ethical mandate (and effective self-care is different from person to person), but perhaps we can be liberated during challenging times to make a point to take care of ourselves.