What Therapists Do When They Feel Overwhelmed
Therapists are real people. It might seem funny to say that, but we forget that clinicians struggle, too. They, too, grapple with depression, trauma, guilt, and self-doubt. They, too, stress out over daily tasks and responsibilities. They, too, feel stuck and paralyzed.
We asked six therapists to share what frays their nerves, and how they cope when these stressors strike. Overall, we hope you realize that you’re really not alone and there are many healthy strategies you can turn to.
Therapist Karissa J. King, LMFT, regularly travels with her husband to speak at marriage retreats. They have two children, ages 2 and under, and she often feels exhausted and inundated with guilt.
When these feelings arise, King reminds herself that she’s a “human being, not a human doing.” “I remember who I am and that my actions will flow gracefully from that identity. I don’t have to put undue guilt—or even worse, shame—on myself, based on things I think others expect of me.”
Practically, King and her husband schedule a buffer day before and after they travel for their talks. This provides them with an evening and an entire day to unpack, be with their kids, and “mentally switch gears.”
King also focuses on fostering her friendships, which has been an “absolute game-changer.” For example, she and her friends have a text thread where they encourage each other in practicing healthy habits and schedule fun activities, such as rock climbing and road trips.
King engages in other nourishing activities, too, including regular date nights, prayer, reading, journaling, bubble baths, and family walks.
Therapist James Killian, LPC, tends to feel overwhelmed when his clients’ symptoms spike, his children are having a tough time, and his loved ones are struggling and also need support. Killian is the owner of Arcadian Counseling in Woodbridge, Conn., which specializes in helping high-functioning adults and teens manage anxiety.
During these times, he turns to mindfulness. He focuses on being present in the moment with each person and he ups the frequency and duration of his daily meditation practice.
Killian also carves out alone time every day, and connects with his therapist.
For Jordan Madison, LGMFT, a therapist in Bethesda, Maryland, stressors include meeting financial obligations, getting behind on work tasks, and feeling like she’s not doing enough to grow in her career.
She navigates these overwhelmed moments by making checklists and identifying what she can and can’t control. Madison also processes her feelings through journaling, takes bubble baths, watches TV, and practices yoga. And she schedules time to do absolutely nothing.
Clinical psychologist Colleen Cira, Psy.D, CCTP, is the founder and executive director of Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago and Oak Park, where she specializes in trauma and women’s issues. She’s also a trauma survivor and feels overwhelmed when that trauma is triggered.
For example, Cira gets overwhelmed when she fears that she’s too much or not enough. She gets overwhelmed when she thinks someone is upset with her (but isn’t telling her), and consequently, she can’t fix the conflict. Other triggers include feeling like she isn’t allowed to have needs or wants, and must do everything perfectly or she’s a fraud.
To navigate those triggers, she pauses, takes a deep breath, and accepts her overwhelmed feelings with “loving arms.” This might look like journaling, crying, or talking to a friend. Next, after she’s processed the most acute part of her pain, she reflects on the feeling she experienced before the overwhelm. This is critical because this feeling will help her identify her needs, and take action to meet them.
For example, if Cira realizes that she was experiencing sadness because she hasn’t seen her friends, she’ll talk to them about connecting more.
Julie C. Kull
Julie C. Kull, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in clients with anxiety, infertility and pregnancy loss, gets stressed out when she takes on too much.
“I am a helper by nature so I want to help everyone. But I have to be very conscious that I cannot help everyone and I have to put my self-care before taking care of others. If I am not healthy, I am not at my best to help others.”
When she feels overwhelmed, Kull tries to pinpoint what’s missing (and nourish that need): Is she meditating or exercising enough? Has she checked in with her close friends? Has she spent time with her husband? Does she need to set boundaries in a certain situation or area of her life?
Carla Marie Manly
“In general, I tend to feel more stressed by my own to-do list and personal expectations than life events,” said Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D, an author and clinical psychologist in private practice in Sonoma County, Calif. When this happens, Manly takes a pragmatic approach that shrinks her stress and empowers her: She steps back, lists her priorities, and completes what she can.
Manly also ramps up her self-care, which includes more walks in nature, meditation, yoga, essential oils, cooking, and time with friends. Changing up her routine helps, too: She’ll see a new movie or drive to the ocean.
Working from a neuro-linguistic paradigm, Manly is attuned to the power of words. “Knowing that the word ‘overwhelmed’ leaves me feeling defeated and powerless, I tend to avoid the use of such words and, instead, tell myself: ‘I feel challenged, but I can pause, breathe, and sort this out. All will be well.’”
Cira wants readers “to really breathe into the idea that struggling—with pain, overwhelm, sadness, worry, stress—is all incredibly human. It’s the very definition of what it means to be human: Humans feel and think. That’s what differentiates us from every other species on the planet.”
“So, struggling isn’t reserved for some and not others—we all struggle,” Cira said. “It simply depends on how willing we are to let that be known.”
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). What Therapists Do When They Feel Overwhelmed. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-therapists-do-when-they-feel-overwhelmed/