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How to stay calm as you juggle work, family and the holidays.

As part of her dissertation research, Christina Spragg, PhD, now a Sacramento private practitioner, found that many would-be mental health practitioners burn out even before they graduate. Many fantasize they’ll have more time for self-care once they become full-fledged practitioners. That’s an illusion, says Spragg, noting that early career psychologists face new challenges such as launching practices, starting families and paying off debt.

“There’s no magic time in which self-care takes care of itself,” says Spragg, emphasizing the importance of starting good self-care habits early on.

And keep in mind that self-care isn’t a luxury. It’s an ethical imperative, says Julie Garson, PsyD, a psychologist at the University of Delaware’s Center for Counseling and Student Development. The APA Ethics Code requires practitioners to address physical or mental problems that may harm their ability to work with clients competently.

Try these tips:

  • Focus on prevention. Regularly check in with yourself to identify potential burnout causes and take action. Spragg, for instance, discovered that crisis intervention doesn’t offer the long-term relationships with clients she needs — a realization that prompted her to open her own practice. Variety in her work is also important, so she limits the number of individual clients she takes on to make room for groups, workshops, creative writing and other outlets. Someone daydreaming about more free time might decide to go part-time or move to a less frantic workplace.
  • Find what works for you. Some people need to shut off their mobile devices after work hours to help reduce any stress associated with their workday. But maybe knowing you have unanswered work emails is more stressful than knocking out a few responses in the evening. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to self-care, says Spragg. Remember that what works for you may change over time.
  • Build self-care into your everyday life. Self-care doesn’t necessarily mean taking a vacation or even a weekly yoga class. Incorporate self-care strategies into your daily routine, such as doing yoga poses between clients, meditating, expressing gratitude, practicing mindful showering or eating — even seeing a therapist yourself, Spragg suggests. Look for opportunities to benefit both yourself and your clients, such as continuing education programs providing information and relaxation, adds Garson, who recently attended a silent retreat for mental health professionals. “Sometimes conferences can be hectic and overwhelming,” she says. “At the retreat, I learned an enormous amount of things to incorporate into my work, but it was also restful.”
  • Amp up self-care in stressful times. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to add more self-care, not eliminate it from your to-do list, says Garson. She recently treated herself to a “mini-retreat” that included yoga classes, meditation, lunch with a friend and a stroll through a holiday village. “It was like a vacation, but between 9 and 2,” she says.
  • Take advantage of low-cost or free resources. Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive, says Garson. Look for free mindfulness apps or free or pay-what-you-can yoga classes, for example.

For more ideas, check out APA’s self-care resources. And watch the winning entries in a self-care video contest sponsored by APA’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance and Committee on Early Career Psychologists.

This column is geared toward early career psychologists working in practice settings. "Running start ... to a great career" features topics typically not covered in graduate school and includes tips and advice from psychologists.

Published Dec. 7, 2018

Date created: December 2018