Natural disasters wreck more than just infrastructure: They shake up our sense of safety, bowl down normal daily routines, and leave us wondering what’s going to happen next. At Zencare, we continue to keep Texas therapists in our thoughts after the disastrous winter storms.
Even when it feels like the world is upside down, therapists often find it difficult to take time off of work. This is especially true in the face of natural disasters, as many providers feel a pull towards supporting crisis efforts and offering mental health first aid. This, of course, speaks to the resilience and remarkable strength of those in the mental health professions. Yet, being in crisis mode in session or in the community in addition to at home becomes especially taxing for therapists - especially when business suffers in the aftermath.
For the therapists who are struggling or feeling fatigued in the aftermath of natural disasters, we’ve collected 10 self-care tips to help you cope, recenter, and take care of yourself, in addition to your clients.
1. Ensure your personal physical safety first
You’ve likely heard the adage, “Safety first!” You may also remember flight attendants reminding you to put your own oxygen mask on before your child’s.
In situations involving natural disasters, thinking of your safety as the first step towards moving forward is essential.
Because of the unpredictability of natural disasters, getting yourself and your family to a safe place creates a sense of security. Once safe, you’ll be able to make other assessments about your emotional wellbeing. Finding safety includes getting physically out of harm’s way and ensuring that you have enough food and water to remain healthy.
2. Maintain the fundamentals: eat, sleep, and exercise
Even if the natural disaster changes your routines, finding the time to eat, sleep, and exercise is a must in order to keep your body well. It might not be your typical schedule, but creating a new consistent pattern of daily activities will help you find a sliver of “normal” as you and the community recover.
Consider asking yourself these questions:
- Have I been eating as well as I can during this time?
- Have I been getting good and sufficient sleep? If not, what steps can I take to help me sleep better?
- Have I exercised in the past few weeks?
Routines promote a sense of security and safety. Having a routine makes processing through your emotions more accessible and gives you the chance to think clearly about what you experienced.
3. Temporarily pause or reduce the number of sessions you offer per week
Depending on your caseload, you may want to pause or reduce the number of sessions you offer immediately after the crisis. This not only gives you time to catch your breath and cope with what happened, but offers the same to your clients as well.
To do so, you may have to make decisions about which clients would be the most impacted by the crisis -- both physically and mentally -- or who would be comfortable with a cancelled session or two. You may also wish to block certain times in your schedule when you don’t have regular weekly appointments, or times when you typically would add in extra requests for appointments. And finally, pausing intake sessions may also give you a more flexible schedule.
By having more time, you’ll be able to place your attention and energy into taking care of yourself and your loved ones.
4. Add more buffer time in-between sessions than normal
If you schedule back-to-back sessions with your clients, you may start to feel overly fatigued or overwhelmed due to the natural disaster -- even if this is your regular schedule, the extra stress added by the natural disaster may burn your fuse a little faster. Taking a break is important for self-sustainability, which is why adding more buffer time in-between sessions may help you reduce the risk of burnout.
In this buffer time, you might give yourself time to take care of administrative tasks, as well as pull from self-care tools. Below are some activities you may wish to give yourself more time to complete during challenging times:
- Write session notes
- Complete billing
- Responding to emails
- Work on other administrative tasks
- Go on a walk
- Call a friend or family member
- Pull from any of these pleasurable activities!
5. Have tools ready to share with clients
It’s hard to ignore an event that impacts the whole community. No doubt the crisis will be one of the first topics in your sessions after the natural disaster, so having tools to share with your clients may be helpful and convenient.
Post-crisis tools might look like starting a conversation about a safety plan or discussing what safety looks like for that client. It might even look like doing a feelings thermometer exercise, asking your clients to give a scale rating for their emotions. This is especially effective if your clients feel stuck, frozen, or unsure of how to process through what happened to them and their home.
Here are a few tools you can share with clients:
- Square Breathing
- Anxiety 54321
- Big List of Pleasurable Activities (modified for COVID-19 limitations)
- Distract, Relax, and Cope: Distress Tolerance from DBT
- Feelings thermometer
- Trigger Busting from EMDR
- Safety planning
By having these tools at hand, you can feel extra prepared at the start of your session -- and you’ll have a structured way for your clients to begin their journey of processing through what happened.
6. Stay alert to warning signs of burnout for therapists
Burnout happens to all clinicians at some point and it’s never an indication of lack of skill or compassion. Simply, burnout means that you’ve spent more energy that you’ve taken in - and that’s usually because you’ve spent your time helping others! Having an instigator such as a natural disaster may manifest in feeling disconnected, unmotivated, frustrated, or having physical and mental fatigue. In the aftermath of the crisis, monitor your energy levels and your engagement. If you find yourself feeling burned out, take it as a sign that you need a break or that self-care should top the priority list!
Other signs of burnout include:
- Lack of usual excitement about events (work-related and non work-related)
- Feeling like no matter how much you sleep, you’re still tired
- Not being able to sleep, excessive thinking as you lie in bed
- Not feeling like yourself
- Having troubles connecting with what you usually love
- Getting easily irritated or frustrated with other people
If you noticed any of these signs, you may need to consider what coping tools you have in your toolkit and what would be helpful to feeling better.
7. Seek support from your colleagues
Even if your professional colleagues don’t live in your community and didn’t experience the natural disaster, they can still be a resource for you when you start to feel burned out. As you give your clients the space to process through the experience in their sessions, be sure to find some time to process through it yourself.
If you have your own therapist or see a clinical supervisor, don’t be afraid to bring up how the crisis impacted you and your current state of mind. If you’re part of a supervision group, reach out to your peers and see if they want to meet up -- or to simply have an online call or text conversation.
Finding ways to connect with other clinicians may be as simple as finding a Facebook group or a listserv. Consider what types of conversations and connections are effective for you in your healing and head in that direction.
8. Connect with friends and family, in and out-of-state
Perhaps what’s most helpful for you, rather than processing through your experience with a peer, is to spend time with your family and friends. If what’s important to you in times of crisis or burnout is to talk with the people that you love, then find ways to incorporate this social connection into your routine.
While the family who lives with you or near you will be able to speak directly about the natural disaster, your loved ones out-of-state will likely have questions about what it was like and how you’re doing. Take this as an opportunity to talk about what you went through and share it with others, putting your emotions into words. Otherwise, be sure to set your boundaries, in case their questions become too difficult for you to answer.
9. Keep a list of stress reducing exercises next to your desk
If it isn’t intuitive for you to practice self-care - or if your motivation to take care of yourself is waning - make it easy to engage in stress-reducing exercises by keeping a self-care activity list nearby.
Here are a few to get you started:
- Stretch to get your body moving
- Pray, meditate, sit in silence
- Play a game
- Any of these mental health tools and resources or these activities
By having this list nearby, you’ll be able to start a self-care activity at a moment’s notice. Without added barriers to taking care of yourself, you can spend more time working on your own mental health.
10. Practice what you preach: seek therapy
If several weeks or months after the crisis, you still feel symptoms of burnout despite self-care activities, it may be time to find a therapist. Finding a trusted therapist and exploring your emotional load helps not only you, but your clients - you can only help people if you take care of yourself.
Natural disasters often come up unexpectedly, which means that we’re never ready for them. Their impact blankets whole communities, and as a therapist, it’s vital to take care of yourself in tandem with taking care of your clients; we hope that during this time, our Texas network can be as helpful as a referral tool, too. Please take good care, and thank you for all the work you do!