Physician, Heal Thyself
Working as a licensed clinical mental health counselor has its ups and downs, particularly when you face issues similar to those of your clients. I’ve suffered from social anxiety for a large part of my life. I recall days in middle school and high school when I worried myself sick, stayed home, failed to complete assignments, and willingly accepted failing grades to avoid presenting to the class.
I experienced heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and shortness of breath in my speaking-intensive college course and well into my graduate courses. However, during grad school, I found that through exposing myself to these mandatory situations, I was still nervous, but not quite as much. My heart raced a little less, I didn’t notice any perspiration on my hands, and my breathing improved.
Managing Social Anxiety on the Job
I still get nervous whenever I have a new client, but now I have ways of preparing: I take some time to acclimate before my initial session, take deep breaths, turn on all the lamps, and ensure my office is tidy. When the office manager hands me the file and tells me my client is ready, I take one more deep breath, drink my cold water, and walk out to greet the new patient.
In these ways, my diagnosis helps me stay in check with the people I help on a regular basis. And if you’re anything like me, you understand the need to exercise self-care as a clinician. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t help our patients do the same. What works for me may not work for you, but if you deal with anxiety, it might help to arrive at least half an hour before your appointments. This allows you some time to yourself before your session begins. What you do with this time is really up to you, but I’d recommend taking deep breaths and using positive affirmations.
I’ve noticed I often have unspoken expectations about certain events or even entire days. I know I’m not alone in anticipating things to go perfectly with no wiggle room. However, this is an irrational belief. Anything can happen, and with no room for error, you almost certainly set yourself up for failure — and punish yourself for it later. Instead, give yourself a break. Tell yourself, “I’m going to do my best,” and follow it up with, “If I make a mistake, that’s okay.” Remember other times when things didn’t go your way. They still worked out. You survived them. You are here. You will be okay.
Introducing Patients to My Experiences
Because I utilize a person-centered approach, I may occasionally make note of my diagnosis to build rapport with my clients. It can be hard to trust a stranger, particularly if they say something like, “I understand.” With that in mind, I may tell patients I actually do know what they’re going through — at least on some level.
I acknowledge that my experiences are my own, and therefore I can’t speak to theirs. But I can provide knowledge and firsthand accounts of deep breathing, positive self-talk exercises, grounding techniques, and self-reminders that they’ve survived anxiety-inducing situations before. And it helps — for me and my patients. Because not only does it make me a good clinician, but it also makes me a better person.