Health Practitioners in a Crisis of Disconnection
Helper burnout creates disconnection of all kinds. As therapists (or other healthcare professionals), this kind of fatigue isolates us from our bodies, our creativity, our sense of meaning, and our intimate relationships.
Right now, health practitioners provide frontline health care, talking daily with people contemplating suicide or who have lost a family member to COVID. Kids have grown-up-sized depression, and their parents feel hopeless and panicky. We have waiting lists if we didn’t have them before. Our client’s issues challenge us like never before.
Surveys of mental health professionals all over the country establish that we’re worried, we’re burned out, and we face new and more severe problems with our clients. We need new skills and we need more time each week to develop them . . . but our schedules are already packed. Never mind rest and recreation.
So how are we, as psychologists, counselors, physicians, body workers, and social workers, supposed to address this emotional pandemic, and how do we deal with our burnout?
Burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome in professionals working with other people in challenging situations, characterized by fatigue and emotional exhaustion – feeling overburdened and depleted. We feel depersonalized. We think . . . Who am I? I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. Why I’m doing it? We feel cynical towards people and we have a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.
Finding Reconnection through the Body
The opposite of helper burnout is connection: with others and ourselves. ReConceive podcast focuses on connecting to ourselves as helpers. We talk about coming home to yourself by coming home to your body. Tracy Maxfield and I believe that the body of the therapist matters to the effectiveness of therapy. Helper burnout calls for intensive, focused reconnection to the body.
For example, we use simple exercises to reconnect us to our bodies as we prepare to see clients in the office. Here’s one to try before you start your workday.
Sit comfortably and imagine that you are just a skeleton: no muscles, no connective tissue. Visualize yourself as a skeleton. Imagine the bones of your feet – the bones of your lower leg – the bones that form your knee joints – your femurs – the sides of your pelvis, and the back of your pelvis. Follow that up through your spine. Finally, visualize and feel your rib cage, skull, and jaw.
This exercise connects you with your body, calms the nervous system, and provides a bit of grounding to bring more of your intelligence online.
It’s so important in these chaotic times to be able to find methods to self-soothe and re-engage with our bodies. Reconnecting with our bodies enables us to move into what’s called social engagement, in polyvagal theory. And social engagement is where we heal.
Listen to ReConceive on this website or anywhere you get your podcasts.