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How to Avoid Burnout When Treating Depressed Clients

3 ways to shield yourself from contagious states like depression


When treating emotional problems you have to be careful not to be dragged down too

As a therapist, counsellor or coach you’re at the frontline of other people’s emotions.

If you don’t have safeguards in place, you can be easily infected by their despair and hopelessness.

It can get to be that every time you help lift someone from a dark place, you’re dragged into the pit yourself and over time this can impact your emotional wellbeing and, ultimately, lead to burnout.

But why are we at risk emotionally from some depressed clients? And what can we do to reduce that risk?

Emotions are contagious

Emotional states, be they positive or negative, can spread not just from person to person but even, it seems, in groups. Evidence suggests that emotions can act like social contagions not only face to face but even over online social networks.

Emotional states can spread not just from person to person but even in groups

Depression is a strong emotional state and, like the Sirens’ call that cast a trance over men as it beckoned them to their fate, it can start to envelop us if we are exposed to it time and time again. But this emotional transmission of depression runs even deeper.

And they spread even from strangers

Nicholas Christakis, an American sociologist, found evidence that depression can be so contagious that even if a friend of a friend of a friend becomes depressed, we become more at risk of depression ourselves.

The risk transfers and spreads through our social network, affecting all those in its path. Human beings are social creatures, and our impact on one another is unavoidable.

So it’s only natural that if our caseload comprises depressed, anxious, and angry clients, we can start to feel damaged and exhausted ourselves. And it’s critical that we recognize this and exercise a little self-care. After all, you can’t help someone who’s drowning if you get pulled in too!

Here are a few smart ways to avoid therapist burnout.

Tip 1: Focus on process, not content

It’s easy to get sucked into the negativity and hopelessness of a depressed person’s world view. But to stay out of the ‘quicksand of despair’, we have to avoid getting caught up in the details of their world.

That’s not to say the details of their lives aren’t important; of course they are – up to a point. But to remain objective, we need to step aside and focus on the larger processes that are going on.

This is not just for our own benefit, but our clients’ as well. Strong emotion constricts context, and to really help our clients we need to keep our perception of context as wide as possible, so we can help them widen theirs too.

Look at what a person is doing, not just what they are saying. In this way you’ll be able to more easily identify the wider patterns of their thoughts and behaviour, and begin to lead them away from depression.

For example: Are they too ‘all or nothing’, ‘black and white’ in their thinking? Are they minimizing and skating over the positives in their lives while magnifying and dwelling on the negatives? Is their thought pattern circular and lacking solution focus?

Look at the patterns and think not only empathically but objectively and strategically to stay free of the ‘depressive trance’. At least one of you has to remain free from the sucking whirlpool of despair or fear if you and your client are to break through the depression.

The next tip is especially important for all carers and helpers.

Tip 2: Help yourself first

If we are the vehicle that transports others to a happier life, then the completion of our own emotional needs is the fuel. Trying to work with seriously needy clients without paying enough attention to your own needs is like setting out on a long journey with an empty fuel tank.

Burnout happens when you continually ‘give’ without getting what you need yourself. When you make an effort to meet your own needs outside of work, you improve your capacity to help your clients meet their needs. You’ll stay fresh and effective for your clients, and you’ll enjoy your work more.

If we don’t get enough attention, intimacy, fun and laughter, relaxation and connection to a wider community; or feel generally safe and secure in our lives, we become much more vulnerable to being emotionally hurt by our clients. Know your needs and aim to meet them. Only then can you help your clients do the same.

And finally…

Tip 3: Don’t be everybody’s therapist

Even Superman is sometimes just plain old Clark Kent.

People sometimes launch into a ‘deep and meaningful’ or regale me with their problems when I’m out socially. And as much as one part of me wants to be there for them, there are limits – and if we don’t set them ourselves, no one else will!

Of course, we all want to be there for our friends and family. But what you want to avoid is a situation where people come to see you as ‘therapist’ first and ‘person’ second.

Gently remind people (especially if you’re not that familiar with them) that it might be a good idea to book a session with you, as here and now (at Jim’s barbecue) is perhaps not the best time to talk about this – and anyway, you’re in the process of recharging your ‘therapeutic batteries’!

We all need to compartmentalize our work lives from our personal lives. We’re in this profession because we care about the welfare of others, but it can’t come at the expense of our own. Our work needs to be sustainable in the long run, and that means staying happy and healthy ourselves.

If you have specific things you do to ensure your own needs are met, let us know in comments – you may just help a fellow practitioner out!

Our How to Lift Depression Fast course gives you a structured, clear approach to treating depression quickly and effectively. Sign up here to be notified when this course is open for booking.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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