The Impact of an Emotionally Demanding Job Role

Every now and then in my role as a psychotherapist, a client will comment with something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how you can listen to people’s problems all day’, or ‘do you ever take your work home with you?’

Perhaps you have had similar comments if you work in an emotionally demanding job role? I could imagine people expressing a similar sentiment towards nurses, teachers, carers, social workers, police officers or any job role involving heavy emotional demands on top of practical demands and more routine day to day tasks of the job.

The truth for me is that sometimes it can be difficult to listen to people in distress all day. When you step back and think about it, it isn’t really a ‘normal’ thing to do with your time!

Nor is it really a ‘normal’ thing to see physical injury and pain all day if you are a nurse working in A&E, or to deal with challenging behaviour all day if you are a police officer or deal with high risk situations all the time if you are a social worker.

The kind of situations you are exposed to on a regular basis when you are in an emotionally demanding role are not common experiences for the majority of people outside your particular profession.

But when emotional demands are a part of your ordinary day to day experience, it can be easy to forget that it isn’t really the norm.

 

A biased view

I remember early on in my career when I was a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with a heavy caseload of people with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I went out one evening to a comedy gig and I was struck by the thought, ‘Wow! Look at all these people who don’t mind crowds!’

It would be easy for me to conclude from my experience at work that everyone has a mental health difficulty and is struggling with anxiety or low mood. Indeed, many people are, but not everyone is!

I can imagine it would be easy to think of most people as being dishonest if you work in the police force, or over-estimating the likelihood of accidents, illness and injuries if you work in healthcare, or any number of other biases we could form, simply through being exposed to similar issues most of the time.

Of course, we can challenge our biases if we recognise them, by taking notice of people, situations or experiences that offer a different perspective. The key thing is recognising your biases in the first place.

 

Losing compassion?

A friend recently told me of an experience with a healthcare professional who made a rather blunt and uncompassionate comment about the prognosis of her health problem. This was a number of years ago and the professional has no doubt forgotten ever having made the comment but it was something that caused a great deal of fear for my friend for many years.

Of course, we are all human and we will all make offhand comments from time to time. Perhaps this professional was simply having a bad day. However, when you encounter the same problem hundreds of times at work, it can be easy to forget that it is perhaps the first time for the person with the problem.

For the clients who come to see me in my role as a psychotherapist, I actively remind myself that their appointments are a really big deal! Particularly at their first appointment; they may have been nervous about it for days.

Of course, you don’t need to have experienced something in order to empathise with it, but I believe that experiencing therapy as the client has been a helpful reminder for me to be more aware of what it is like in the other chair.

The importance of compassion and empathy is not lost on the vast majority of people working in an emotionally demanding role. I would like to hope that for most of us, we do show compassion, most of the time.

But what if we feel like we can’t? What about when the emotional demands become overwhelming or exhausting? If you are finding it increasingly difficult to empathise in your job role, it may be a sign of compassion fatigue.

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Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the negative emotional cost of caring for others – something synonymous with emotionally demanding job roles. Compassion fatigue may look like stress, emotional exhaustion or burnout but it can also include symptoms of secondary trauma.

You can find more information about compassion fatigue from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project here: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html

And a great blog about preventing compassion fatigue from Good Therapy here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167

 

How to reduce the impact of an emotionally demanding role

In my view, one of the key things for us if we are in an emotionally demanding role is to be in touch with our own emotions. If we are avoiding our emotions, numbing out or unable to recognise how we feel it will be more difficult to manage our own emotions in a helpful way.

Self-care is also key. Spending time building our emotional resources, engaging in enjoyable activity, taking breaks, using relaxation and connecting with others is important to maintain your wellbeing when the emotional demands on you are high.

Use grounding techniques throughout the day while you are at work. Grounding is a simple and effective way of re-connecting with the present moment and it doesn’t need to take a lot of time to do, so it can be easy to fit in even on a busy working day.

Allow others to care for you. When you are in a helping role, you can often get used to putting other people’s needs before your own. Maybe you see yourself as the helper and find it difficult to accept help from others? I know this was true for me and it took me a long time to accept that I sometimes need a bit of help too. It may sound silly, but by asking for help I learned that help… actually helps! We are all human and it is OK to seek out help and support. Even if you are usually the helper.

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t simply about letting yourself off the hook. It is about developing an attitude of kindness, wisdom and forgiveness towards yourself. It is about acknowledging that you are human, recognising your needs and developing an attitude of acceptance towards yourself. If you are not used to showing yourself compassion, this can take time and regular practice. You can find some helpful resources to get you started here: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Compassion

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If your workplace involves a high level of emotional demands, you can find out about wellbeing workshops in the Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees areas here:

Workplace Sessions

 

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How To Not Enjoy Your Achievements

So, you just achieved something you wanted to achieve and you feel happy about it, right?

No?

Then you are probably following these 4 simple steps that will prevent you from enjoying your achievements…

 

Step 1: Focus on the negative

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If you got 99% in that exam, focus your attention entirely on the 1% you didn’t get.

 

Step 2: Ignore the positives

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Be sure to attribute your success to anyone or anything other than yourself. You could blame your success on the fact that it was too easy, that anyone could have done it, or frame it in a way that it wasn’t really your effort but someone else’s that made it a success.

 

Step 3: Move your goalposts

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This is a way of acknowledging you succeeded in your goal but still maintaining the idea that it wasn’t good enough.
If you ran 5K, move your goalposts immediately to 10K and focus on how you haven’t achieved that.

 

Step 4: Compare yourself

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The crucial element of this is to compare yourself against people who you think have achieved more and to forget all of the context surrounding their success.

Never mind that they have been doing it for longer than you or had more help than you or any advantages they may have had. It is also important here to focus on only the positives of their success and ignore any negatives.

Alternatively, you could compare yourself against a time you think you did better than you have now, but again, remembering to ignore the context.

 

If you are currently enjoying your achievements and want to join the many perfectionists who aren’t, just follow these 4 straightforward steps and you will be miserable in your achievements in no time!

 

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Emotions About Emotions

I always remember learning about the concept of meta-emotions (emotions about emotions) at university and the lecturer making the point that we seem to be the only creatures that do this!

Lions don’t feel guilty about feeling happy when they caught the gazelle.

Dogs don’t feel ashamed of feeling over-excited on their last walk.

Fish don’t feel embarrassed about feeling anxious whenever they hear the song Baby Shark!

Actually, I’m not sure what the emotional experience of a fish is, but you get the point.

 

Adding to our emotions

I don’t know if it is technically correct that other creatures don’t have meta-emotions but it does raise an interesting point about what we humans do with our emotions.

Rather than allowing emotions to be there and to pass by, sometimes we will add an emotion in response to the first emotion.

Have you ever felt guilty for feeling happy?

Have you ever felt ashamed of feeling angry?

Have you ever felt sad about feeling sad or anxious about feeling anxious?

 

Judging our emotions

It seems to me that when we experience meta-emotions they usually come heavily laden with negative judgement. We are judging the primary emotion as being wrong, inappropriate or harmful in some way or judging ourselves negatively for having the emotion at all.

The difficulty is that when we judge our emotions and ourselves in this way, we are usually inviting in a whole load more negative emotion than if we had allowed ourselves to just feel as we felt.

 

The alternative?

The good news is that there is one meta-emotion that can end this cycle of negative emotions about emotions! And that emotion is…

Compassion!

If we learn to be compassionate towards our emotions rather than judging them harshly, trying to avoid them or suppressing certain emotions because we think we shouldn’t feel that way, maybe we would feel a whole lot better!

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Two simple questions you can ask yourself if you think you are judging your emotions or yourself too harshly are:

  1. What would I say to a friend in this situation?
  2. What would a compassionate person say to me in this situation?

 

Maybe then we can learn to feel compassionate about feeling angry, kind about feeling sad and understanding about feeling anxious.

If you have been spotting and naming your emotions since reading How Are You? maybe you can level-up and start spotting your meta-emotions!

 

If your workplace could benefit from an emotional resource building workshop, check out sessions here: Guided Relaxation & Workshops

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Grounding: Emotional First Aid

Grounding is a tool I often use with patients. In CBT it is usually used to help people who have been through a traumatic experience, for example to ground someone back in the present moment if they are experiencing a flashback.

However, in my opinion, you don’t have to have been through a trauma to benefit from this simple yet powerful technique.

 

What is grounding?

Grounding is a technique that can be used immediately in the moment when you feel your emotions are at a high level to help to bring them down to a more manageable level.

The aim of grounding is to re-connect with the present moment by using your senses.

In this way, it is similar to mindfulness.

An example might be to literally stamp your feet and feel the contact of your feet on the ground.

Other examples might be:

  • Rubbing your hands quickly together and feeling the heat you can generate.
  • Deliberately spotting all the green objects you can see around you.
  • Listening for the next 5 sounds you can hear around you.
  • Smelling essential oils/your perfume/your coffee.

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When to use it

Crucially, the aim of grounding is not to get rid of emotions.

Emotions are there to help you to make sense of your situation.

However, if the emotion is very distressing, unmanageable or overwhelming, then grounding can help to bring the emotion down to a point that you can cope with it and allow it to pass.

 

Emotional first aid

I like to think of grounding as emotional first aid.

We all know that from time to time, we might cut ourselves and bleed.

If the cut is small, we don’t need to do anything. We can leave it alone and it will heal itself.

This is the same with most of our emotions.

We will all feel difficult emotions from time to time but if they are at a manageable level, they will pass by without any need for us to intervene.

At this level, we don’t need to use a grounding technique to manage our emotions but we could choose to use relaxation techniques, meditation or mindfulness practices to boost our overall wellbeing.

 

If we cut ourselves a little deeper, we may need to cover it with a plaster so that we can get on with our day.

The cut is still healing itself underneath the plaster and it wouldn’t necessarily harm us if the plaster wasn’t there.

The plaster is helpful in that it is stopping the cut from bleeding all over the place and preventing it from getting caught on things that could hurt it or slow down the healing process.

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At this point, we might think of the emotional level as being difficult or distressing but not completely unmanageable.

Grounding could be helpful at this point to help to re-group (i.e. not spill all over the place).

Just as the plaster helps to prevent a cut from getting caught on things that could hurt and slow down the healing process – grounding yourself in the present can help to reduce dwelling, worrying, and over-thinking that could exacerbate the difficult emotion.

This is where I believe many of us could benefit from grounding.

 

However, from time to time we might be unlucky enough to sustain a serious wound that needs pressure applying to it until medical attention can be sought.

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This could be the emotional equivalent of flashbacks, nightmares or ‘zoning out’  following a traumatic event.

Here, grounding can be used to manage severe distress until you can receive help from a therapist or mental health professional.

Just as you would go to A&E with a serious wound, if you are experiencing these kinds of symptoms, it is important to seek appropriate support.

Your GP or your local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies service may be a good place to start.

 

Want to know more about grounding or building your emotional resources?

You can learn more about grounding at my upcoming Emotional Resource Building Workshop. Details of workshops and events can be found on my Facebook page here: Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing Facebook Page

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Building Emotional Resources

(Because sh*t happens)

When you first think of resources you may think about things like time and money. These things are undoubtedly important but I would like to invite you to think about your emotional resources.

If you were going about starting a practical project like building an extension on your house, starting up a small business or even a small project like baking a cake, it would seem very sensible to start by gathering your practical resources.

If you are building an extension, you need plans, building materials, experts to help you, money to pay for it, time to build it.

If you are starting a small business, you will need a product or service, somewhere to work from, insurance, promotional materials, a computer.

If you are making a cake, you need some ingredients, a mixer, a cake tin, an oven, and some time.

Yet people can often expect to be able to meet life’s challenges without investing anything into their emotional resources.

Even in the day-to-day life of working, parenting, caring for someone, being a friend, running a car, maintaining a home, there are bound to be many and varied problems along the way.

 

Just as you need building materials for your extension, you need emotional resources to deal with life!

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How do you know if your emotional resources are lacking?

Feeling drained?
Tired?
Irritable & on edge?
Tearful, fretful, harassed or over-stretched?

If it only takes a small thing to tip you over the edge or if you think you couldn’t possibly cope with one more thing going wrong, this is a sure sign that your emotional resources are depleted.

Even if you are OK, it makes sense to keep you emotional resources topped up and it certainly can’t hurt to have more resources available to you.

 

How can emotional resources help?
Let’s do a quick thought experiment to demonstrate the difference between running on empty and having good emotional resources…

Think for a moment about a time when you have felt really overwhelmed or drained.

  • Really picture yourself in this scene…
  • Notice how you stood or sat
  • What was the expression on your face
  • Notice your tone of your voice
  • How did you feel in your body.
  • Notice what kind of thoughts you would have when you feel this way.

Now imagine your car breaks down.

  1. How would you feel?
  2. What would you think?
  3. How easy or difficult would it feel to sort it out?

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Now contrast this by thinking of a time when you felt confident, on top of things, strong or competent. Picture yourself again:

  • Notice how you stood or sat
  • What was the expression on your face
  • Notice your tone of your voice
  • How did you feel in your body.
  • Notice what kind of thoughts you would have when you feel this way…

Now imagine again that your car breaks down.

  1. How do you feel this time?
  2. What would you think?
  3. How easy or difficult would it feel to sort out?

Which starting point would give you more resilience?

 

And…
When we invest in our emotional resources, it can save you other valuable resources too.

If you can solve a problem without worrying as much about it, you will save the time, effort and energy you would have put into worrying.

When you can think in a more constructive way about a problem, you could save yourself wasted time and effort chasing your tail on ineffective solutions or time spent dwelling about how bad things are or how difficult life is.

Whatever level your emotional resources are now, investing some time into building them is time well spent.
You can’t prevent sh*t from happening but you can build up your ability to cope when it does!

Did you know that Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing offers a Building Emotional Resources Workshop for the workplace?

Check out Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing Guided Relaxation & Workshops

The first step in building emotional resources is noticing and naming your emotions.

You may like: Why I Don’t Like the Terms ‘Stressed’ and ‘Depressed’

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