Counsellors and psychotherapists are going to be busy helping front line workers and clients heal after the extreme stress of Covid-19. Jill Carter suggests ways to recover from extreme stress
During difficult times, it’s a natural response to try to keep going. Therefore, the phrase ‘living off our nerves’ is very apt. We are all out of routine with major changes such as periods of time at home. In addition, there is the chronic stress of home-schooling, isolation, health condition or bereavement that we may be facing. We may also be feeling stressed about the financial consequences of the pandemic.
On top of all this extreme stress, we are expected to hold our clients’ distress. How do we manage it without experiencing burnout?
Let’s firstly take a step back and look at our bodies’ stress responses. Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance is a helpful model here. We can only function when we have some stress hormone reaction (cortisol and adrenaline). However, too much long-term stress makes it difficult to regulate ourselves and we shut down. As an illustration, think of Goldilocks. Not too much, not too little, just right. Hence the term window of tolerance. We can tolerate i.e., function when we able to be in our bodies. Too much stress makes us dissociate or shut down. This is in fact what Stephen Porges calls the fight-flight response or playing dead.
We have to learn how to recover from extreme stress ourselves before we can help someone else heal: this is co-regulation in action
Because we are mammals, our nervous system talks to other people’s nervous systems. So, the main way to recover from extreme stress is to find a calm way to stay connected with others. This in fact activates what in polyvagal terms is the social engagement system. We heal ourselves and each other by simple things like breathing together and cuddles. Think of a litter of kittens huddled together – that’s what our mammalian brains need. One of the most effective ways to relieve stress is to hug someone. In fact, a long hug (about twenty seconds) reduce stress by releasing the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
Ok, so we can’t do that very much at the moment. What’s the next best thing? Getting to know your own needs is a start. You may be experiencing negative feelings, either because you haven’t enough company or too much. As a health professional at the present time, it’s all too easy to put other people first. Friends family members and clients can all be ahead of you in the caring queue. The question I ask students is ‘what makes your own heart sing?’ If there is something creative that helps do that. Nourish yourself with knitting, painting, humming in the shower. Move around if you can.
I like dancing in the morning before I see clients. Not that I feel like doing it, but I do it anyway.
It’s easier to get through a day in front of a screen when my body feels loose and warm.
Make sure your boundaries are good with clients and family. It’s time to be ‘selfish’ and put your own needs first.
The sad fact is that clients’ needs, and pain are going to last a long time. Perhaps feel endless. Be a kind witness to that but maintain a professional distance. I learnt that lesson the hard way. When a client wanted me to fix them (or the more I wanted to do that for them) both of us would go down. If you as a therapist get depleted, your clients are going to sense that and feel worse not better. So please avoid the temptation to take on too much. Don’t try to save too many people in these desperate times.
A good mantra is I am already doing all that I can. And if you can’t say no, practice let me get back to you on that. You aren’t going to discover how to recover from extreme stress without boundaries.
I recognise when I’m very stressed because I lose my sense of humour. What are your clues or triggers?
Good supervision is crucial at the moment. As is group support. People who know you, know your blind spots and coping mechanisms. My supervisor knows my saviour complex, when I’m trying to save the world and manages my expectations!
I have supported many counsellors and supervisors in this pandemic. A lot of our work on our courses is helping people feel less guilty about taking time out for themselves. That can mean going for a walk or reading a book. One of the things that feeling stressed for a long time does to you is you lose focus. The whole world is tense and finding it harder to relax. So, be kind to yourself if you can’t concentrate on a novel, try a soothing podcast instead. Remember that a listening to a calming voice is a great form of stress relief. Exercise and fresh air also help regulate us, especially now that the snowdrops are out. In fact, nature is the perfect antidote to a day on screens.
I’m ending with a story that I feel sums it up. A boy is walking along the beach throwing stranded starfish back into the sea. A man watching him laughs and says ‘that’s not going to help, there’s hundreds of them’. The boy, throwing a starfish into the waves, replies ‘it helped that one’. And that’s all we can do.