Self-Care for Therapists and Mental Health Professionals

self-care stretching in field

[bctt tweet=”Self-care is never a selfish act- it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. -Parker Palmer”]

In this article:

  • Overview of Types of Stress
  • A free Self-care check in
  • Developing a Self-care Plan
  • Identifying Self-care activities
  • Additional Self-care resources

If you’re a therapist, chances are you’ve heard over and over again about the importance of self-care for not only your clients, for yourself as well. But what does that mean exactly? What does self-care look like? How can we tell we are taking care of ourselves to avoid burnout or compassion fatigue?

We’ll give you some real life examples, resources, and tips you can begin implementing today.

We’ll also share with you a free self-scoring checklist you can use to monitor your professional quality of life thanks to author, B. Hudnall Stamm.

Please note some links in the self-care literature section are affiliate links to Amazon.

cute boy trying to find inner balance in self-care meditation

1. Types of Stress Experienced by Helping Professionals

The most common stressors related to work include: large amounts of paperwork, dealing with insurance companies, large caseloads, and being called to court.

Society for Psychotherapy discusses 3 main types of stress experienced by helping professionals: distress, therapist burnout, and vicarious traumatization. SaraKay Smullens warns against another type of stress- compassion fatigue.


Distress is defined as “extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain” and referred to a normal and inevitable experience of life. Whether this stress is a result of personal loss, financial concerns, or from working with difficult clients (such as high-conflict custody cases), it is important to remain mindful of this stress. Left unchecked, distress can lead to feelings of inadequacy or the inability to cope. Left unchecked, distress turns into the next type of stress- therapist burnout.

Therapist Burnout

Therapist burnout is a term often discussed in Counseling graduate programs, but not entirely understood unless it has been experienced. It is important to remain self-aware of emotional exhaustion, loss of empathy, and your sense of accomplishment– all of which fluctuate on a continuum. If you notice you are struggling in any of these areas, be sure to create and maintain your self-care plan, which will be covered later in this article.

Vicarious Traumatization

Some have suggested that vicarious traumatization is also known as compassion fatigue, however, in this article we differentiate the two. Mental health professionals working with clients who were victims of trauma are particularly susceptible to vicarious traumatization. This occurs when the therapist is emotionally activated after learning or hearing about an emotionally intense experience of the client. Symptoms include psychological arousal, avoidance, distressing emotions, and the inability to stop thinking about the client’s disclosures. Left unattended, the therapist will begin developing the trauma symptoms he/she is attempting to help the client resolve.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue occurs from giving excess amounts of empathy, and is compounded by the pressure felt when clients don’t seem to be making progress. SaraKay wrote a book on this issue for social workers called Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work: A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions.


2. Develop a Self-Care plan

body, mind, soul, spirit and you self-care holistic self

As you begin to develop a plan, feel free to use the provided assessments in this section. I do not own these assessments.

The University of Buffalo Social Work program lays out steps you can take to develop your individual self-care plan. The steps are as follows:

How do you cope now?

Begin by making a list of the things that have been good for your well-being so far when you are faced with stress. Use the assessment below to assess for any maladaptive behaviors you may be using, and aim to replace at least one of those with a more adaptive coping strategy. 

 Is your lifestyle causing you stress assessment. 

For further reading, Brene Brown has a book, Rising Strong (link provided in literature section), with a free guide provided on her website about the different ways we handle stress and express emotions. 


What are you already doing for self-care?

Next, use the link below to assess for what you are already doing and how often for self-care.

 Self-care assessment worksheet. 

Categories of activities listed include: Physical Self-care, Psychological Self-care, Emotional Self-care, Spiritual Self-care, Workplace/Professional Self-care, and Balance. 


Maintaining your Self-care and continuing to eliminate Maladaptive Coping Skills

After completing your Self-care assessment, make note of which areas you could improve on, and list a goal you will work towards to implement more compassion into that part of your life. Continue to monitor your Self-care by using the assessment provided below in Step 3.

Be prepared

Just like you would have a client develop a safety plan in times of stress, it could be helpful to do this for your Self-care as well. Think about who you could call and what you could do if you felt extremely stressed. Refer back to the Self-care coping strategies you identified. Make a list of who and what to avoid when you’re faced with extreme stress. 

Elaine Rinfrette, PhD, LCSW-R recommends you write this plan on an index card and keep in your purse or wallet (or on your phone if you can) to look at often.

Commit, Share, & Follow

Lastly, the University of Buffalo suggests you commit to your plan, share your plan with someone encouraging, and to continue keeping track of how you are doing. Self-care is an on-going process! Below is an assessment tool you can use to continue monitoring your Self-care. If you find you’re still not scoring as well as you’d like, you may need to revisit your plan.

3. Continue to Monitor your Self-Care

Author, B. Hudnall Stamm provides a free Self-care check in. This assessment is free to print and share with your colleagues as long as you do not change the questions and credit the author.

Professional Quality of Life Scale (PROQOL) Self-Scoring.

Use the assessment above to continue to monitor how you score on the Compassion Satisfaction, Burnout, and Secondary Traumatic Stress scales. 

4. Self-Care activities

If you had trouble identifying Self-care strategies in the earlier steps, here are a few examples you can implement: 

Scheduling massages, eating well, sleeping well, taking breaks (even if briefly) in between sessions, and physical activity. Some enjoy reading books, or sitting outside, while others enjoy creating art or writing blogs. Meditation, taking hot showers, watching satisfying Youtube videos, the list is endless!

Self-care may mean mindfulness to some, and making plans with others. What is important is knowing yourself, your style, and what helps you to relax and feel refreshed!

Self Care Retreat for Women Therapists and Helping Professionals 

(Sautee, GA, November 8-11, 2018)

Young women doing self-care yoga in gym

Lynn Louise Wonders is hosting a Self Care retreat for women in the helping profession. It will be a refreshing weekend in the mountains of Georgia filled with reflection and gentle practices like yoga. If you’re a woman in need of Self care, definitely check this one out! Scholarships are available. Please click here for more information. 

Lynn also leads a Therapists’ Self Care Support group on Facebook for licensed mental health practitioners. 

Check out these additional resources below to embark  on your own self-care journey. 


Self Care Literature

References psychotherapists-trainees-issues-implications-recommendations/

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Lynn Louise Wonders

    Fantastic resources! I will be sharing all of this with the people who attend my self care retreat in November – thank you for sharing! And I will be sharing this article with my Therapists’ Self Care Support Group on Facebook!

    1. Laura

      Lynn, I appreciate the feedback. Feel free to share this article with others to spread awareness of the importance of self-care even for helping professionals!

  2. Kim Martinez

    Great article. i will share with my FB groups.

  3. Rose LaPiere

    love all the resources.

    1. Laura

      So glad you found them useful, Rose!

  4. Liz Gray

    Thank you for the very important information and all the amazing resources!

    1. Laura

      Thank you, Liz!

  5. Liz Gray

    Thank you bringing up this very important topic. I also LOVE all the resources you shared!

    1. Laura

      Please enjoy the resources!

Comments are closed.