Looking after ourselves when working with complex clients

Do you ever have those days where you wish you could do a job that was a little more detached from emotion and other people’s pain? I know I do, even though I love what I do, and I bet I’m not the only one.

Working with pain is sometimes painful

I’ve been working with people with physical health conditions, mostly persistent pain, for all of my qualified career. Many of us enter the helping professions because we want to do just that – help people. As we all know, although we can be hopeful that an individual’s physical health can improve, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes we have to work alongside people and their pain, and they’re overwhelmed and it won’t get better. And that can be really hard for us too.  We all come at this work with our own personal backgrounds and experiences – and to coin Carl Jung, maybe some of us are also ‘wounded healers’ – compelled to treat others because we, ourselves, are wounded.

We can feel some of what they feel

What about mirror neurons? It seems that these bad boy brain cells fire both when we do something but also when we watch someone do the same thing.  It seems that these help us to be empathic, but if we are constantly working with people who are in pain, what does that do to our nervous system? Commonly, people with persistent pain and other life changing injuries can feel angry, hopeless, sometimes suicidal. And let’s not forget about vicarious trauma….when we’re constantly hearing stories of accidents, injuries, death and destruction, those stories can stay with us. Sometimes this work is a really tough gig.

A personal experience

Do you recognise this cycle in yourself?  I care a lot, so I will work hard.  I get a bit burnt out, maybe feel I’m not doing enough, so I try and work even harder.  Maybe I am even working in a system that supports this cycle!  Sometimes these difficulties are systemic and I know I have had to make tough calls in my career about the kinds of organisations I want to work in.  If my nervous system is not well regulated, there is no way I can connect with and help a client regulate theirs.

Photo by Hernan Sanchez on Unsplash

Here comes the science bit

At Retraining Pain, we champion evidence based approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and try and practice what we preach about neuroscience. If you know anything about these approaches, you’ll understand that they also recommend some self-directed practice. When we can start to befriend our own nervous system and understand our role in helping our clients to regulate theirs, our own well-being becomes of prime importance. Health is wealth! There have been some interesting things written recently around “busy” being a status symbol. We say we are busy, we think it means we are successful. However I know when I am too busy, it means I am not engaging with the things and the people that are really important to me, and I’m not investing in my own health and well-being and consequently I’m likely to do a less good job in a career I am passionate about. So here are five little tips that you could try too.

5 quick tips you can try today

  • Can you start to really notice when you are starting to feel ‘dysregulated’? By this, I mean you have moved out of our preferred state of ‘rest and digest’ where you feel safe, calm and connected to others, into a state of activation, anxiety or shutdown.  Many of us don’t even recognise this until it’s a bit too late. What might that look like for you? How might your body start to feel? What might people around you notice? For me my physical health tends to take a dive, and if I’m being totally honest I might feel a bit disconnected from my clients.
  • Learn some self compassion. There are literally thousands of studies now showing that when we can turn towards our own distress with kindness, our ability to be kind and caring to other people is also enhanced. Self compassion is not weak, fluffy or selfish.  It doesn’t need to take lots of time, it might just be acknowledging a moment of suffering with kindness.
  • Think about what is important to you when you are trying to balance work and life.  You could ask yourself, ‘is this going to help me, or hurt me?’ There may be big things you have no option to change, but are you able to make small changes?  Do you need to work late in to each evening?  Can you choose to take a lunch break?  Can you sometimes say ‘no’?
  • Do something that is soothing for your nervous system each day, or even better, sprinkle those things throughout your day. My current favourites are getting outside for a break wherever possible, lighting an aromatherapy candle or even just spending one minute between zoom calls taking some slow breaths. When we are anchored in safety, our nervous systems response to challenges throughout the day without overwhelm or long-term dysregulation.
  • Touch automatically activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).  Try placing a kind hand on your heart or your tummy and imagining what an encouraging loved one or wise coach would say to you in a moment of distress.  It takes literally seconds to do.

It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out but when you really care about what you do, you have to care about yourself in order to do this well. It’s that old analogy of put your own oxygen mask on before helping those around you.

If you would like help from our multidisciplinary team, or if you are a pain specialist physiotherapist, occupational therapist or clinical psychologist who would like to work with us, say hello at [email protected]