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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Imagine if thoughts were emails

We all have far more thoughts in a day than we can pay attention to. Many people have more emails in a day than they can pay attention to as well!

But are you filtering out ‘junk’ thoughts in the way that your emails are filtered?

Or are you being drawn in by the subject header reading ‘what if’, ‘you should have’ or ‘you’re not good enough’  as if it was ‘special offer just for you’?

And maybe some helpful thoughts are mistakenly finding themselves in your junk folder.

 

Recognising junk thoughts

We all have ‘junk thoughts’ and some of them are probably pretty obvious but we all tend to have some junk thoughts we mistakenly treat as if they are high priority.

Here are a few styles of junk thoughts:

 

Self criticism

The priority mistake: believing that being hard on yourself will help you to do better next time or can motivate you in some way.

Why it should go into your junk folder: would you say mean things to someone else to motivate them to do better? What would you say instead? If you wouldn’t say it to someone else, it is probably junk.

 

Mindreading

The priority mistake: believing you know what someone else is thinking about you. For example ‘she must think I’m stupid’.

Why it should go into your junk folder: you can’t read minds!  Is there any evidence that supports your assumption? Are there any other alternative ways other people could be thinking?

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Catastrophising

The priority mistake: believing that you can prepare yourself by worrying or thinking about the worst case scenario.

Why it should go into your junk folder: thinking about worst case scenarios activates your body’s fight & flight response. Are you really better prepared when you have spent a lot of time and energy worrying, feeling anxious, not sleeping, or eating properly and thinking about terrible outcomes? Have there been times you didn’t worry about something but coped well with a problem?

 

Not junk?

As well as paying too much attebntion to junk thoughts, there may be helpful thoughts mistakenly going straight into your junk folder.

 

Filtering Out Positives

Junk mistakes: believing that if you let yourself accept compliments/positive feedback/ you will become arrogant. Believing that if you allow yourself to be confident or happy, you will have further to fall if something goes wrong. Believing that if you feel happy, you will lose motivation to move forward.

Why it should be marked as ‘not junk’: our thoughts and our emotions are closely linked. If we only allow ourselves to notice negative thoughts, we will feel… well, negative. It is more helpful to recognise positive and realistic thoughts to gain a balanced perspective and take helpful actions.

As for the beliefs above, if you don’t want to be arrogant, you won’t be!

If you are happy or confident, it can help you to bounce back more quickly and easily after a ‘fall’.

Motivation to gain something good is different from motivation to escape something bad. You can feel good and still be motivated to do well and to move forward and it feels a lot nicer than feeling bad and being motivated just to escape the awfulness!

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You Don’t Work Better Under Pressure

No really! You don’t!

It seems to be such a commonly held belief that pressure improves performance. If you are among the many people who hold this to be true, here is why I think you are performing despite pressure, rather than because of pressure.

When you perceive any threat (such as a looming deadline or negative consequences of under-performing), your body’s fight & flight response is activated.

When you are in this response, your body is geared up for running away from a physical danger or fighting a threat.

Even if you can’t actually run away or fight the threat, your body responds as if you can. This is why we experience physical symptoms of stress, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath and muscle tension. All of these physical changes would be really helpful if you did need to run or fight.

 

The fight & flight response makes it difficult to conentrate

Have you ever been trying very hard to concentrate and the harder you try and the more pressure you put yourself under, the more easily distracted you feel?

This is because we go into scan-mode in order to spot danger and run away from it. This would be very helpful if you were an early human at risk of being eaten by a predator!

What this usually means for us today is that it is very difficult to focus and concentrate on a task when you are feeling under pressure.

As far as your body is concerned, if you start concentrating on something like your laptop, a predator could sneak up on you and eat you!

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The fight & flight response makes it difficult to think straight

Have you ever been in an exam and as soon as you get out of the exam room you think of all the things you should have written about? Or you figure out what you should have said in an interview on the way home in the car?

In the fight & flight response, the body and brain’s resources are diverted to where they are going to be most helpful for getting out of danger. In your body, your blood is diverted away from areas like the digestive system towards the big muscles in your arms and legs.

If you were running away or fighting you need your arms and legs to be functioning at their best – you don’t need to be eating a massive sandwich.

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Just as your resources are diverted in your body, they are also diverted in the brain.

Your brain activity is diverted away from the pre-frontal cortex when you are in the fight & flight response. This area of the brain is where all your higher cognitive function happens such as problem solving, reasoning and planning.  Instead, your brain is more active in the emotion (namely fear) centres of the brain.

As far as your body is concerned, you don’t need to be coming up with the theory of relativity while you are running away any more than you need to be eating a massive sandwich!

It is physically harder to think when you are under pressure!

When the pressure is gone, you can more easily access the pre-frontal cortex again which is why you suddenly remember everything after you have stepped out of the exam or the interview room.

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We tend to misattribute what has worked for us

It is more difficult to perform under pressure but this is not to say that you can’t perform under pressure. So maybe you are thinking:

  • ‘Yeah but I did well in my exams’
  • ‘Yeah but I got the job when I was under pressure in the interview’
  • ‘Yeah but I met the deadline when I needed to’

If you have had success following a time of high pressure and stress, it is easy to view this as cause and effect. But maybe this isn’t actually the case. Maybe you did well despite the pressure rather than because of the pressure.

What if you could have got the same result or better and felt better in the process by taking some of the pressure off?

Can you think of a time when you didn’t care so much and didn’t put yourself under pressure and performed better than you expected to?

 

Relaxation can be a great way to calm the fight & flight response and taking breaks can help you to reduce the pressure you put on yourself.

Why not give it a try and find out if you really do work better under pressure?

If your workplace could benefit from an emotional resource building workshop, check out sessions here: Guided Relaxation & Workshops
You can find details of public events here.
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Lists: Are They Helpful?

The only way to write this blog is in the form of a couple of lists:

List 1: Yes

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  1. Lists can help you to organise your thoughts and reduce the chance of forgetting things.
  2. Lists can be helpful in prioritising tasks, particularly if you use a priority rating system when making your list.
  3. They can help you plan ahead and organise your time well.
  4. Writing a list of worries can help you to see which ones you can problem solve and which ones are hypothetical.
  5. A list of pros and cons can help when making decisions.
  6. A list can keep you focused and on track. (If I didn’t write a shopping list I would return home with an assortment of interesting food but no actual meals!)

 

List 2: No

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  1. If you have too much on your to-do list you are likely to feel overwhelmed.
  2. Lists can be a sneaky way of procrastinating.
  3. If you over-rely on lists to prevent forgetting, you may not be giving yourself a chance to trust your memory.
  4. If you are constantly adding to your lists and never reach the end it could be contributing towards feeling stressed and frustrated or thinking that you are never doing enough.

 

So…

  1. Keep to-do lists short and achievable.
  2. Give a priority rating to your tasks.
  3. Try adding ‘take a break’ to your list (and give it top priority!)

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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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