How to Avoid Your Clients Triggering You
Does your client base tend to stay within a steady range of the same issues? Typically these include phobias, anxiety, and weight management. You might find that you are so used to working within these areas that they no longer push any buttons, so to speak. Potential previous issues you will have already worked through. For example, you may have struggled with your weight in the past, but after working with numerous clients on the topic, you have become desensitised and are no longer triggered by the way they describe food.
As a therapist, you are aware of your issues and how they may become affected by working with certain clients. But what about issues that you don’t have or experiences that you haven’t had? How will you feel, cope and manage to hear the details of those difficult stories?
While discussing the experience empathetically with your client, you can start to connect with their thoughts and emotions from that memory and even those they are experiencing now. As a result, therapists can have imaginative experiences of the event, with some being more susceptible to the impact of various experiences than others. Most therapists will listen, understand and recognise the experience and focus solely on working through it. For others, they can hold on to aspects of the trauma, even creating for themselves a Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS).
An STS is a trauma experienced indirectly. It can lead to compassion fatigue or a reduction in the ability to empathise with others. Secondary Traumatic Stress can also be extremely draining and overwhelming, causing burnout.
How the condition affects individuals varies. For some, it can have an adverse effect on the relationship with the client experiencing the trauma. For others, it can impact on all abilities to interact with others, including clients. There have been overlaps with burnout and the reluctance to engage with the business elements of practise such as returning calls and emails, paying suppliers and even booking clients.
A therapist may even actively avoid clients that wish to tackle topics they may find emotional or triggering by avoiding questions relating to the event that may generate emotions. This can impact every aspect of the treatment, from initial consultation through to the details of the experience and any goals they wish to work towards. The practitioner may even ask no questions and work blindly without content placing responsibility for effective work on the client.
Secondary Traumatic Stress may also affect how a practitioner works with a client. They may avoid gaining information by use of long scripts or seeming distant and disengaged. Another undesirable impact is the therapist themselves, while feeling emotions relating to the trauma, expresses these to such an extent the client becomes aware of them. Feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, and hatred. These unhelpful displays can lead the client into feeling you are not supportive, are not listening. It may only take one poor session for a client to walk away, but that experience may taint all further therapy sessions making recovery even harder.
How To Manage with Secondary Traumatic Stress
Therapists working through issues that may result in STS may find a strategy that helps them identify, prevent and treat their clients without creating possible trauma for themselves. This could include being aware of their own triggers, past life experiences, mental health issues, how they dealt with and will deal with them.
Good working practice could also include being aware of the strategies that could be improved, how this could be done, thinking about what works well and what, if anything, could make them even better. Stress, anxiety and depression levels of your own are also important to be aware of and how you, yourself, will deal with them.
Secondary traumatic stress could be prevented by being proactive in some of the following areas:
• Knowing and being aware of your limits
• Taking part in activities that interest you
• Meditation, mindfulness or another relaxation technique for mental relaxation
• Ensuring and maintaining a positive work/life balance
• Undertaking activities that encourage creativeness, e.g., cooking, gardening and art
• An awareness of and maintaining professional boundaries, allocation of caseloads, regular breaks both between clients and taking regular annual leave will help prevent STS and give the therapist a ‘healthier’ workload. Therapists should always be mindful of their emotional state so that they can discriminate between their issues and those of their clients. They should also be able to reflect on sessions and be aware of possible STS Flags, including:
• Anticipation of low or poor outcomes
• Avoidance of engagement with clients
• Avoidance of places or people associated with work
• Disturbed dreams
• Emotional numbness
• Gaps in session recall/poor memory
• Reduction in productivity
• Reliving experiences
When addressing treatment for triggers from clients, both professional and personal support can be beneficial. Self-care can play a huge role in your psychological wellbeing and can come in the form of restricting your workday, changing your working day or even taking a complete break from work. Increase the time you spend on non-work related activities with family, friends and even colleagues. On days that you are busy, just ten minutes to sit and do nothing or a chat with a friend can help you rebalance.
Particular strategies you may wish to explore:
• Increase self-care concerning rest, exercise, sleep and diet
• Write thoughts and emotions down into a notebook, diary or recording device
• Have therapy yourself.
• Have a supervision session with a therapist experienced in practitioners being triggered by clients
• Engage in a peer-to-peer discussion group-perhaps with those working around you or a community online
• Start a new form of relaxing exercise such as yoga, self-massage or tai chi
Ultimately, it is beneficial for all therapists to be aware of their feelings and actions when treating clients. Spotting the signs and reacting early can not only protect your client but yourself and your reputation. Seeking support for triggers of traumatic events is important. It does happen and is far more common than you think.