How Can Counselling Help With Stress and Burn-Out?

In the current economic crisis we are all having to cope with change.  For companies this means reducing costs and increasing demands on employees.  This leads to increased stress, not all of which is the positive kind that prompts us into doing a job well, subsiding when we have completed the task.  Sometimes bosses respond to their own added stress by using a “stick”  rather than a “carrot” approach.  This can plunge us back into feeling like a helpless child again.  Sometimes the critical, parental voice is internal as we tell ourselves that everything will be ok if we just keep our heads down and work hard.

So what are the early symptoms of stress?

In the early stages people can feel:

  •  More vulnerable
    •    Fear (for their own and others’ safety)
    •    Like they are burning a short fuse (maybe upsetting colleagues)
    •    Cynical
    •    Detached/Numb/Isolated
    •    Angry
    •    Sad
    •    De-skilled
    •    Lacking in confidence
    •    Anxious
    •    A loss of interest in relationships/food/sex
    •    Fatigue
    •    Unmotivated
    •    They are making erratic decisions with negative consequences

At this stage people are sometimes able to recognise how they are feeling and decide to do something about it.  Useful strategies are talking to family/friends, time off work and taking time to exercise or relax.  However, if  these strategies don’t seem to work it’s easy to feel even more powerless to change the situation.  People say things like, “I feel like I’m in a hamster wheel”.  That critical internal voice is telling us that the reason we are finding life so hard is because we are not up to scratch, that we are a failure – everybody else seems to be managing.  If these changes go unnoticed or are ignored over a prolonged period more noticeable changes can occur, perhaps leading to a crisis (burn-out).

Changes that often prompt action (maybe a visit to the GP) can be:

  •  Depression
    •    Lack of sleep/Exhaustion
    •    Over or under eating (stuffing down our feelings/punishing ourselves for our weakness)
    •    Illness (stress is known to lower the immune system)
    •    Heart problems
    •    Nervous breakdown
    •    Increase in alcohol intake

Usually by this stage others are noticing changes.  If they continue to be ignored there is a higher risk of suicide.

How can counselling help?  Probably the most important thing to know is that counsellors aren’t there to criticise or judge (people usually do that perfectly well for themselves and/or have others to do it).  Counselling is a process, not a quick fix where people are told what to do.  The early sessions are about forming a trusting relationship so that the client can be honest with the counsellor, but more importantly with themselves.  Through listening the counsellor will be able to “hear” things that the client has maybe been stuffing down with food/alcohol or avoiding with depression or anger.  As people become more aware of what is contributing to their situation and how they feel, they can begin to consider options and “try them out” theoretically in counselling.  If the changes that have caused stress are permanent the counsellor can help the client to look at their “least worst options”.  Nobody can change the situation but the client still has some control over which of the least worst options they may choose.  It might be that the client chooses not to change anything, but that knowing and accepting how they feel about their situation is enough to reduce some of the stress.  Problematic workplace or personal relationships can be looked at and other ways of relating can be explored.  This can also help reduce stress and can increase the feeling of being back in charge of our own life again.

People who have suffered burn-out often speak of it being painful but cathartic.  It forces a re-evaluation of who we are and counselling is a highly effective way of re-evaluating.  People can come out of the other side even stronger than before.

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