Spring is here and a counselor’s thoughts turn to…. escape? I can see branches of a fully blooming crabapple tree outside my office window. This can be a positive and a negative thing. A glimpse of spring flowers is a pleasant sight. But it also reminds me I am indoors and they are out- in the changing but generally more temperate climate known as Spring. Distracted thoughts can be an early warning sign not just of spring fever but of EOBO or early onset burnout… (yes I made that term up).
But it is a real phenomenon- characterized by distraction, fatigue, being behind on paperwork, irritation with colleagues, and a host of other seemingly small “symptoms” that are signals we need to take care of ourselves before full blown burnout occurs. Burnout is described very well in a website that includes a brief self survey on burnout issues (http://www.leburnoutsesoigne.com/burn-out/history.html ). But I am talking here about EOBO or the early onset variety and how to prevent the full burnout from occurring.
I think most counselors underestimate the level of stress they are under. I know I have had experiences of not realizing my stress until it was alleviated and suddenly I could see the difference. In the past I worked full time at an agency that dealt exclusively with sexual abuse. I enjoyed the focus, the specific skills and learning involved, the variety of work. But I also was in a constant state of tension when court cases occurred that needed my appearance- despite being competent and comfortable in that setting. I tended to deny that it was stressful- as a coping mechanism. But one day, months after changing jobs not because of any stress but just for professional growth, I was driving past the courthouse and noticed that I felt different! My stomach did not automatically tighten. Aha! I had been habitually holding a lot of tension and not even recognizing it.
We are not always aware of our tension or stress, or maybe I’m just an excellent represser… a real skill! But I think we can safely assume that any form of counseling involves stress to the counselor and thus we need to engage in constant and ongoing preventive efforts related to burnout. Of course there are the usual suggested activities such as exercise, social time with friends, strong family ties, etc. But there are other less heralded ways to head of burnout- noticing the daffodils, or the crabapple, outside the window might be one. Or taking a walk around the building between sessions. Baking cupcakes, drawing a picture, journaling- any form of creativity is one of the best antidotes and preventives.
I keep a blank journal and some colored pencils on my desk and doodle, draw, create, brainstorm, write, between sessions or at the end of the day. One of my favorite past activities was a notebook with a grid pattern (scientific notebook maybe?) and I spent happy moments coloring in squares and creating patchwork patterns and creations. Any kind of journal is also great for those 15 minute intervals you may spend listening to muzak as you await an authorization from a managed care company- if this is something you find yourself doing. (The key there is to keep a note as to who you called so when they finally come on the line you can identify what you are asking for.)
I also find writing poetry and reading it to be a strong supportive activity for my prevention efforts. The words and images can bring me genuine relief and support. Rainer Marie Rilke is a favorite poet of mine and this quote is helpful for me: “Whoever you are: some evening take a step out of your house, which you know so well. Enormous space is near.” Just remembering that helps me stay more fully present in my office to those I’m privileged to work with. We do know our “houses” of therapy and counseling quite well, but I think we all need to remember that enormous space IS near.
Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family
therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.