Blog by Chinwé Williams, PhD
We made it to 2022. And it’s probably not a stretch to say that the past two years have looked like no other.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed our lives.
As a community of therapists, we have witnessed it’s impact up close and often uncomfortably personal as we sat with client after client who has been affected in some way by the virus and its deleterious effects.
The unfolding and seemingly never-ending challenges of the past two years have weighed heavily not only on clients, but also on therapists both personally and professionally. We too are managing the compounding stressors of burnout, economic insecurity, health scares, and even death of family members and clients.
As a trauma therapist who counsels adults, adolescents, and families, I have been particularly struck by the concerning numbers forecasting the future of pediatric mental health. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a declaration that mental health among children and adolescents has become a national emergency.
The urgent warning issued in October of 2021 by these three powerhouse pediatric groups was alarming, but the reasons they offered were unsurprising:
“This worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020.”
While the pandemic has wreaked emotional havoc on most of us, children of color have emerged to be at more risk. Sadly, the majority of children who have lost a parent or grandparent caregiver due to COVID-19 were children of color. Native American and Black children top the list.
The degree of grief, loss, and trauma experienced by many communities has increased mental health awareness as well as the demand for counselors– particularly mental health professionals who serve diverse populations.
But here’s the rub – therapists are fried. . . And burned out
And many therapists are demonstrating symptoms of vicarious trauma.
How do you heal others when you are numb, scattered, overwhelmed, and off-balance, yourself?
There is obviously not a simple remedy. However, one thing is clear: taking on too much as clinicians will not work.
I have been reflecting on the concept of smaller vs. bigger in our culture. Have you ever wondered, “Where did that idea come from?!” While I don’t know who exactly is to blame, I have come to the conclusion that big is not always more desirable.
In this ongoing season of turmoil and distress, here are some thoughts on ways in which small may be better for the overwhelmed therapist:
- Focus on the small moments.
Staying centered as a therapist isn’t always easy. When everything is aggressively vying for your attention personally and professionally, life can feel BIG and really disconcerting. And as you face those various demands, you know intuitively that only the most important things (e.g., health, family, peace) matter. But, if we’re being honest, in those moments when you’re seeing client after client plus managing insurance billing, telehealth, and the plethora of other practitioner responsibilities, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
When everything feels out of control, reflect on those small places where you can begin to regain some semblance of control. For me, it’s not the places as much as it is in those sacred, smaller moments.
Small moments of….
When life feels particularly exhausting, pause and ask yourself this question:
What is the most important thing I have control of and can act on right now in service of my peace?
Then take another deep breath and do just that.
- Focus on smaller steps:
One of the most undesirable aspects of the start of any new year is the pressure to create lofty and/or remarkable goals. How about celebrating that you woke up in 2022 and are still here to tell about it? That’s pretty remarkable, don’t you think?
Beyond first of the year resolutions, there is a significant benefit to setting small, incremental goals throughout the year. The best goals are the ones that are attainable and sustainable. Small steps toward slightly bigger goals can generate a cycle of successful movement as you establish and hit mini-targets. This movement can lead to increased confidence and motivation, making the healing work we do with traumatized and grieving clients sustainable.
And therapist friends, don’t forget to celebrate your successes along the way!
The idea that everything has to be bigger (e.g., houses, cars, goals) is an idea that most Americans have been socialized to believe. But when it comes to making sustainable progress, bigger doesn’t always equate to better.
- Consider a smaller practice:
I know. This is probably the most surprising suggestion on the list. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you let all of your associates go. What I am suggesting, however, is that you take some time to reflect on your current practice and reassess if your business is working well for you as currently structured. If not, then determine your next steps. And don’t be afraid to make a change– or a series of small changes. If the last two years has taught us anything, it’s that life is unpredictable, and that pivots can happen swiftly, but often smoothly.
One small change you could implement is to pause on accepting new clients until you feel like you can catch your breath. Or reduce your work week by 1 day. Consider upgrading to an EHR system or investing in a virtual assistant that can save you some time AND make your business run a little simpler. Lastly, consider seeing fewer clients in a week but offering longer sessions. As an EMDR therapist, I personally feel much more productive following my 90 min sessions vs. my 50 min or 60 min sessions. Consider which session structure works best for you (and not just for your clients) and test it out.
- Find a small community.
Perhaps the idea of shrinking your practice isn’t ideal right now for a number of reasons. Fair. But perhaps you find yourself feeling more than a little drained and disconnected at the end of each workweek…or work day. As a therapist, it’s important to find your community. That was always the case but even more so in 2020. One way to find your tribe is through professional development events. Ongoing consultation with experts and peers can be helpful in preventing burnout. While I occasionally enjoy a large conference, I sometimes find the smaller events more intimate and even more valuable. Small in-person and even virtual gatherings allow opportunities to connect, soak in the collective wisdom of colleagues, and refresh yourself as well as your toolbox.
And speaking of community…
The field of trauma work has seen incredible innovation just in the past decade. If you are looking for a good training and are eager to learn some innovative trauma techniques, my colleague Erica and I will be facilitating two, one-day LIVE workshops in February on ways to help clients (and ourselves) begin to heal from racial trauma. This training will cover the long-term effects of racial trauma on our clients’ brain, nervous system, and body—and how you can begin to reverse the impact.
The most common feedback we get from previous attendees is that while the focus of the training is on working with BIPOC clients, it’s a training that provides some well-deserved refreshing for therapists regardless of racial and ethnic identity. Check out the details here:
Hope to see you there! Wishing you all the best this new year and beyond,
Dr. Chinwe’ (Co-Owner of SCTI)