Therapists Spill: How I Cope with Stress
None of us is immune to stress — not even the professionals who help others cope with theirs. In fact, sometimes it’s just as hard for clinicians. “I wish I were [an] expert at dealing with stress management. I find that I’m far better at guiding people to manage their stress than I am at taking my own advice, and managing my own,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
But that’s why it’s so important to have an assortment of tools and techniques at your disposal. This way, when stress strikes, you have an army of options to deal with it healthfully.
Below, Duffy and other clinicians reveal how they reduce and manage their stress.
Before you can deal with stress, you need to recognize that you’re actually stressed out, which isn’t always obvious. “In order for me to de-stress, I need to acknowledge my stress-state in the first place,” Duffy said. For warning signs, he zeroes in on his body. “I have certain tells, like tapping my feet or slipping into a headache.”
Duffy de-stresses by writing, exercising and being with loved ones.
I write to de-stress, and this is highly effective for me. I get lost in that creative process, especially if I can get into the flow of it, and stress is a non-factor.
I can say the same for exercise. When I am running or working out, it is incongruous with stress for me.
Perhaps the best day-to-day stress manager in my life is spending time with my family and friends. And I know that if I’m laughing, I’m good.
I have so many things I do when I’m stressed out. I’m a very sense-oriented person, so my de-stressing toolkit involves cooking, gardening, painting, meditation, yoga, catnapping, taking a walk, listening to music, lingering in the fresh air of an open window, a lavender-scented bath or nursing a cup of chamomile tea.
I have to say that I truly make “time for me” a significant priority, even if it means sitting in my car for just a few minutes during a busy day with the sunroof open, my seat tilted back just right, the radio playing soft jazz while I sip a warm latte. Just don’t bother me should you spot me in the Starbucks parking lot, okay?
Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., a psychotherapist, author and teacher, takes a meditative – and humorous — approach to stress.
When I’m stressed out I like to cook really healthy food. I like to spend time at Whole Foods getting super clean ingredients and then I like to chop vegetables, make sauces, etc., until I have a great tasting, healthy dish to enjoy.
The process is meditative and ideal for me on practical levels as well! Then I take a picture of the dish and post it to Facebook so my friends are jealous.
I also like to take the dog for a long walk so I can sort of zone out while he enjoys his exercise.
My best protection from stress is the therapy frame: the boundaries of time, place, and role that give structure to therapy. For example, I do my best to begin and end sessions on time so I have 10 minutes each hour to write a note, return a phone call, eat a snack, and strum on the guitar I’ve had sitting by my desk for the past decade. Those 10 minutes are my time to recharge, refresh, and prepare for the next session.
I’m not rigid about this. Sometimes a session needs to run a few minutes long, but I try to hold tight to that boundary because I know it benefits me and my clients in the long run.
I also try to leave work at work by completing my notes, phone calls, and business busywork at the office.
Howes also has a variety of outlets that help him deal with stress. Seeing his own therapist is a major one.
When I’m away from work, I have my family, friends, basketball league, running, writing, and my endless quest to create the perfect tomato sauce. I’ve tried 200 recipes and I’m not there yet.
I’m also in therapy and will continue therapy as long as I’m seeing clients. I ask other therapists to do the same, or at least seek regular consultation or supervision. I believe outlets like this and feedback on your work is essential.
For Christina G. Hibbert, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and expert in postpartum mental health, daily habits are vital in staving off stress, and coping with it.
As a psychologist and mom of 6, I must admit I feel stressed more often than I’d like. The good news is that, over the years, I’ve learned to see stress coming and tackle it before it gets out of hand.
As a wise person once said, “…calm is something you must go after, whereas stress comes after you” (Judith Orloff, MD). Stress certainly comes after me, so I seek the “calm” in the following ways.
My daily habits help the most, to both prevent and manage stress. These include: morning exercise, scripture study, meditation, and prayer; putting foods in my body that give me energy; and getting to bed in time to get a good night’s sleep (when my kids will let me!).
I also take a daily “rest” before my kids get home from school (or if they’re home, I make them rest too), so I can lay down, take a nap, read, or just unwind for a bit.
For stressed out muscles, I get a deep tissue massage at least once a month, and I’m a big fan of a hot bath on a cold day.
Hibbert turns to cognitive-behavioral techniques to cope with distorted thinking, which only exacerbates stress.
When stress levels rise, I use cognitive-behavioral techniques to manage my thinking—one of the best tools I’ve ever learned for stress management (check out my article on “Thought Management”). This helps me see what my mind is saying and gives me the opportunity to turn it into something more realistic.
She also uses stress as important information to scale back on commitments and focus more on savoring life.
I tend to be “all-or-nothing,” so I also examine my commitments and start saying “no” a little bit more. Mostly I take stress as a sign that I am doing too much. It’s a great warning signal that I need to go back to the basics again—to slow down, let love in, let go of “doing” so much and just “be” for a while.
When stress gets so overwhelming, it’s paralyzing. Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist and owner of the counseling practice Urban Balance, uses a tip from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
I know that in AA, they talk about “doing the next right thing.” When I get stressed out, I sometimes become almost paralyzed with feelings of overwhelm. I find that doing anything proactive, even something simple like straightening up my space, will make me feel better. Once I gain momentum, I tackle the things that need to be addressed to alleviate the stress.
Like the other clinicians, Marter also has a collection of tools, which includes cranking up self-care, calming uneasy thoughts and putting stress into perspective.
I increase self-care, such as exercise, proper nutrition and rest.
I practice mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation, to ground me in the present. This helps me to stop obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, and to realize that basically everything is okay in the present moment.
I silence my inner critic and replacing that voice with a positive mantra, such as “I am only human and am doing the best that I can.”
I take everything off my plate that isn’t imperative and delegate what I can.
I share with my core support system and ask them for help.
I try to remember that stress ebbs and flows and “this too shall pass.”
I try to “zoom out” and gain perspective. If it isn’t a matter of life and death, I try not to be too serious and remember to see the humorous aspects that exist in most situations.
I try to detach from ego and focus on my essence — meaning rather than defending my sense of self (which can be very stressful), I try to let go and live life from a deeper, wiser, spiritual entity within.
Stress is inevitable. And when it strikes, it can feel like you’re being attacked from all sides. That’s why having healthy tools to turn to is critical. Maybe the above techniques resonate with you. Or maybe they help you brainstorm your own set of de-stressing activities. Either way, having a plan to prevent and handle stress can be the difference between falling from a cliff and tripping over a pebble in your path.
Tartakovsky, M. (2013). Therapists Spill: How I Cope with Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 4, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/therapists-spill-how-i-cope-with-stress/