How Do Counsellors and Therapists Protect Themselves From Getting Traumatised?16 Ways counsellors and therapists protect themselves against getting traumatised Click To Tweet
“I was wondering… How do counsellors and therapists protect themselves? Doesn’t listening to people’s problems and distress all day long bring you down?” my friend Laura asked me, as we walked our dogs alongside the river on a crisp, cold January morning.
As someone who sees a therapist herself, Laura knows how important it is that her therapist stays open and empathic to whatever might need to be talked about and explored in therapy.
If Laura’s therapist were to stay aloof and closed-off emotionally, then the therapy wouldn’t feel helpful or be effective.
And for a therapist, being emotionally present will mean that your clients affect you. You have real feelings in response to them and to the material they bring.
So there’s a conundrum.
Whilst remaining open and empathic to their clients’ ‘stuff’, how can therapists protect themselves from being too impacted by distress, difficult feelings and even, sometimes, trauma?
As renowned psychotherapist Patrick Casement writes, ‘Patients have taught me that when I allow myself to feel (even be invaded by) the patient’s own unbearable feelings, and I can experience this (paradoxically) as both unbearable and yet bearable, so that I am still able to find some way of going on, I can begin to ‘defuse’ the dread in a patient’s most difficult feelings.’*
Being affected by our clients is part of the healing power of the work.
Feeling Moved and Affected – But Also Protected
As therapists, it’s important to recognise and own our own vulnerability, and to manage it.
And part of that means that after the session, we need to be able to release any trauma and distress, in order to protect ourselves.16 ways that counsellors and therapists can protect themselves from getting traumatised Click To Tweet
‘Vicarious trauma’ is trauma that arises out of witnessing or hearing about someone else’s traumatic experience. Vicarious trauma needs to be nipped in the bud, because as well as damaging therapists’ own wellbeing, it can also contribute to burnout, causing a therapist to leave the profession entirely.
Fortunately, there are all sorts of ways that counsellors and therapists protect themselves from becoming overly affected by clients’ pain.
16 Ways Therapists Protect Themselves and Prevent Vicarious Trauma
This week, a therapist posted in an online therapist group I’m part of, that she had been deeply affected by hearing some particularly traumatic material brought by one of her clients. She asked for suggestions for how she could release some of the distress and emotional disregulation that she still sensed deep inside herself.
Other therapists rallied round to offer support. They also discussed approaches that they personally had found helpful.
With their generous permission, I am going to share here some of what they said.
1. ‘Gift Box’ Visualisation
Jessica Spence says “So this may sound silly, but afterwards, I envision the session again, but this time with the client giving me a gift box of all their issues. We look at it together, examine it, feel the feels, then box it back up and I picture handing it back to the client”.
2. Moving/ Shaking Out/ Dancing
Movement can be a very powerful way to shift trauma-related energies that have become stuck.
“Sometimes I physically “shake it off” letting all my limbs release it and relax…. Also verbally yelling, making crazy nonsense noises… Sounds silly but it helps” one therapist explains.
“It’s important to be able to address vicarious trauma and to physically and emotionally release the experience. As a somatic therapist I encourage mindfulness and movement. You can try shaking it off or dancing – whatever movement resonates with you. There are some good breathing exercises that I find helpful” says another therapist.
“I tend to do protective (and also grounding and nurturing) visualization/meditations before I see clients, since I mostly work with trauma and hear some pretty intense stories. I used to take on a lot of their energy/feelings. It still slips through once in a while, but I’m much better about keeping myself from “absorbing” it compared to the past. I create shields of protective light around my heart and body — this may look different for you, based on what you feel might protect you” says Carmen Schmidt.
Shannon Nemzer says she uses imagery this way: “I cut the ‘energetic cord’ between myself and client, and picture sending the client a big ball of green healing light.”
4. Body Scan Meditation
Maritza Plascenci says “I noticed a while back that whenever I have a session in which a client discloses violence it tends to trigger some weird randomized body aches. It was torture for me having worked at a domestic violence agency for 5 years because I was always in pain and didn’t know why and doctors couldn’t figure out why. The only thing that would help was doing body scan meditation and it felt as if I was reclaiming my body”.
5. Releasing Feelings
As soon as possible after the session, tune into your body and sense what needs to be released. You may need to have a cry, or to move (see above).
Connecting with someone you’re close to can really help you release some feelings, and take in some nurturing. You don’t have to break confidentiality by talking about the client’s stuff; you can just let your friend or loved one know that you need some caring support.
Music can be effective for releasing feelings, too. If there’s time after a session, perhaps you can listen to a piece of music that reflects the emotions that the client brought, followed by a different, lively upbeat piece that gets you moving and feeling energised and positive, and lastly perhaps a peaceful, calming piece that will reset your mood and energies.
6. Changing the Atmosphere
Several therapists have told me how they feel that ‘smudging’ with sage can help change the atmosphere and introduce a different energy. “I always sage off before a session (to set the space) and after (to cleanse all energies)” says Merrie Haskins.
Others say that scented candles, diffusers or simply opening a window for a while, can change the atmosphere enough for them to feel their nervous system can re-set.
This could be writing, or image-making in your art journal. Knowing that it’s for no-one’s eyes but your own (and making sure you don’t write about your client but instead about your own responses and feelings) can allow for genuine and effective self-expression.
Art is one of the best ways to express complex feelings that otherwise could stay stuck in the body and mind. Draw, paint, doodle, or involve yourself in a craft such as knitting.
One therapist recently shared that he sometimes makes an abstract painting as a way of reflecting on his work with a long-term client when they end their therapy. He sees it as honouring the significant connection, and their work together. He didn’t say whether he shows the painting to the client (I suspect he may not) but it helps him personally to process that therapeutic work.
Art therapists often make artwork (outside of sessions) as part of their personal way of processing traumatic client material and protecting themselves from vicarious trauma.
Do you like the idea of art-making, but feel hesitant, or not sure where to start? Maybe you could come to one of my workshops for therapists in Essex, UK, where I’ll help you find enjoyable, meaningful ways to connect with your individual creativity.
9. Take it to Therapy
Did you think therapists were ‘beyond all that’? We aren’t! A great many counsellors and psychotherapists are actively doing our own deep healing work in our own personal therapy.
Partly because we know that we can only take our clients as far as we’ve been ourselves; and partly because new stuff crops up in an ongoing way, through the process of living (we’re not immune from losses and traumatic events, just like anyone else).
And of course our personal therapy is somewhere where we can process our feelings and responses to any client material that we find traumatic or triggering.
One therapist says that when she notices she’s getting overly affected by ‘client stuff’ between sessions “I take it to my own trauma-informed therapist. It’s so important to do so.”
Somatically-based psychotherapy can be helpful: “Some people get relief through somatic psychotherapy methods. You know, it’s all so activating of the autonomic nervous system, and then things get stuck and start affecting our bodies” says Margaret Howard.
Daniela Paolone says “I do tapping ( emotional freedom technique) to clear it out of my body. That in combination with some deep breathing and affirmations really helps me.”
Several therapists were very enthusiastic about EMDR treatment that they experience as part of their own personal therapy.
Margaret Howard comments “I’ve even had an EMDR session to take care of an image that was sticking with me from a session I was conducting. It can develop into PTSD just as a primary trauma can.”
Another therapist states “I could not live without EMDR in my life. Both as a therapist and a human. It allows the continuous release of material that can build up. I highly recommend it!”
And Merrie Haskins adds “As an EMDR therapist I use some of it on myself”.
Brennan Mallonee says “I also trained in Reiki, and do Reiki on myself when I feel like I’m taking on clients’ energy, traumatic or otherwise. If I can tell where that energy is lodging in my body, I’ll aim some Reiki at it and visualize light dissolving it. Sometimes I do a visualization where I grow roots from my feet into the earth and then imagine light washing through me and taking all the bits of others’ energy out of my feet and into the earth, so I won’t carry it anymore”.
13. Supervision and Consultation
Supervision (sometimes called Clinical Consultation) is essential for many therapists and counsellors, and most professional organisations require it. “I found it to be very helpful. It’s helped me understand my triggers as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and I’ve been able to recognize the ways I have felt the same trauma play out in different but similar scenarios” says Art Therapist Sheilagh McGreal.
14. General Self-Care
We all know how important self-care is, whether it’s the warm-and-fuzzy cosy kind or the punchier get-out-there active stuff (we need both!)
One therapist says “Whenever I feel like this, I journal, acknowledge the pain, cry (a lot), self soothe by taking a bubble bath, go get a massage, treat myself, sit in silence through deep introspection.”
I’ve assembled some good self-care ideas here in ‘Floating Your Boat: Self-Care for Therapists and Counsellors’.
And here are some more ‘hidden’ ideas that counsellors and therapists could smuggle into their normal day without creating too many ripples.
And for counsellors and therapists in South-East England who want to dip into and expand their creativity in a self-care kind of way, my workshop Creative Self-Care for Counsellors and Psychotherapists could be just the thing!
15. Scheduling Carefully
Another way many counsellors and therapists protect themselves is to make sure they leave enough time between sessions to take care of any emotional issues in themselves that may come up. Celeste Labadie says, ‘I schedule my sessions with 15-30 min breaks so I can do my own [emotional and energetic] clearing after’.
Although I left this one until last, it’s actually the most important of all. If you’re starting to feel strongly affected by your clients’ traumatic material, revisit your boundary-setting and consider whether there’s something that may have slipped and might need to change. Remember, boundaries encompass emotional, relational, moral and legal domains, so try to think through each of these, ideally with another therapist or supervisor.
The Importance of Checking with Yourself
Beth Ryland explains that it’s important to be in touch with what you need in each instance, so you can determine whether you just need a small temporary adaptation or whether there’s something that requires more extensive work.
Beth remembers that after a particular session involving the processing of a client’s intense trauma, she developed her first-ever ocular migraine, which was quite a shock to her. However, “I checked in with myself and discovered that although it was very difficult (yes, I teared up in session with my client and cried later alone), it wasn’t actually traumatic for me. Awful, yes. Traumatic, no. I was able to let the difficult and awful yet non trauma thing go easier than other things I might hang onto more.”
A Brief Note on In-Session Approaches
In this article, I’ve mostly concentrated on how therapists protect themselves after and between sessions. But I just want to acknowledge that of course there are all kinds of ways that counsellors and therapists work during a session, which are intrinsically designed to ensure that both the client and the therapist remain as safe as possible. These are fundamental to every therapy training, and are the backbone of the therapeutic work. Plus, moments of shared humour in the session – as long as it is attuned and empathic – can be a wonderful way of helping both client and therapist tolerate looking at whatever difficult stuff needs to be attended to.
Being there for my clients to help them process their difficulties – and to experience their joys and pains alongside them – is what being a therapist is all about. And I feel very honoured to be able to do this valuable and rewarding work.
Some of my clients have suffered some very distressing experiences that they need to talk about and process in therapy. And sometimes the images and feelings that people bring can be very powerful and affecting.
But a combination of good training, good luck, and all sorts of effective self-care practices, have so far meant that I have been able as a therapist to help my clients whilst also protecting myself from becoming too affected by their distress and trauma.
And of course, there are many more than 16 ways that counsellors and therapists protect themselves from getting emotionally overwhelmed by their clients’ trauma and distress. What do you use?
If you’re a therapist or counsellor, what have you found most helpful? Please share in the comments at the bottom of this post!
There are a number of excellent books for therapists which focus on self-care, protecting oneself, and preventing burn-out. You can read about my favourites here in ‘6 Essential Self-Care Books for Therapists’.
Tara Leaver (encouragement and ideas for making art) www.taraleaver.com
Sincere thanks to many of my colleagues for their useful input into this article, including:
Brennan C. Mallonee LMHC www.brennancmalloneelmhc.com
Maritza Plascenci LMFT www.mindfulquestrelationshipcounseling.com
Heather Johnson, Licensed Clinical Psychologist www.psychologistsd.com
Margaret Howard LCSW www.thewildtherapist.com
Merrie Haskins MS LPCC www.morningstarmn.com/merriehaskinsmorningstarcounseling/
Beth Ryland LMFT www.foundationtherapies.com
Celeste Labadie LMFT www.collectiveconnection.com
Daniela Paolone LMFT www.westlakevillage-counseling.com
Shannon Nemzer LCSW www.intuitivehealingjourney.com
Carmen Schmidt LMFT www.carmenschmidtmft.com
Jessica Spence LPC www.jessicaspence.com
Sheilagh McGreal LCAT www.rochesterarttherapy.com
Are you looking for therapy or counselling in Colchester, Essex or Suffolk? Or would you like to try online counselling UK? Contact me to discuss what you are looking for. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation to determine what your needs are and for us both to get an idea of whether I might be the right therapist/ counsellor for you.
*Casement, P. 1985, pp.154-55