Self-Care for Counselors: Why It’s Important

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Demand for mental health services is on the rise. When the American Psychological Association surveyed psychologists in 2021, it found that:

  • 84% of psychologists who treated anxiety disorders reported an increase in demand for treatment of anxiety.
  • 72% of psychologists who treated depressive disorders reported an increase in demand for treatment of depression.

A counselor practices breathing exercises.

Counselors help meet the growing need for the services that mental health professionals provide. Improving the lives of clients can make the work that counselors do highly rewarding. As with many rewarding professions, however, counseling can also be challenging, and the risks of stress and burnout are always present.

One way counselors can reduce stress and the risk of burnout is to practice self-care. Benefitting both counselors and their clients, self-care is an important component of any counselor’s routine. Individuals who may be considering enrolling in an online counseling program can benefit from learning about self-care for counselors.

Exploring Counselor Burnout

Working as a counselor can be very fulfilling. As employment website Indeed reports, careers in counseling enable individuals to:

  • Make a significant difference in improving the lives of their clients
  • Work in a wide variety of settings (from schools and social services agencies to private practices)
  • Specialize in a preferred area (for example, mental health, addiction or career counseling)

However, the counseling profession can also be stressful and lead to issues such as:

  • Given the highly demanding and emotionally charged nature of counseling, burnout is a common concern. Counselor burnout can be characterized by feelings of exhaustion (physical or emotional), negative feelings toward clients, and the absence of a sense of fulfillment in work, according to a 2021 article in The Professional Counselor.
  • Compassion fatigue. The American Psychological Association explains that compassion fatigue is a particular feeling of burnout or stress that mental health professionals can experience after working with traumatized people for an extended period of time.

The Concept of Self-Care

Practicing self-care can help counselors combat burnout and compassion fatigue. But what exactly is self-care for counselors? The American Counseling Association’s code of ethics describes self-care as the activities that counselors perform to sustain their well-being (emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually) to enable them to carry out their professional responsibilities in the most effective way. Practicing self-care also enables counselors to serve as role models for their clients, demonstrating to clients the importance of boundary-setting and wellness in their own lives, as a 2021 article in the Journal of Counseling & Development noted.

Why Is Self-Care Important for Counselors?

Reducing counselors’ stress levels and avoiding burnout are some of the primary benefits of self-care, but they are far from the only ones. Self-care is important for counselors for several other reasons, including:

  • Avoiding professional impairment. In 2021, the American Psychological Association published a report specifying that, if individuals who provide mental health services do not practice self-care, they risk professional impairment that can reduce the effectiveness of their services.
  • Increasing self-awareness. Practicing self-care can enhance counselors’ self-awareness. This can enable them to more easily understand their clients’ pain and the issues they are experiencing.
  • Ensuring professional responsibility. The American Counseling Association’s code of ethics requires counselors to monitor themselves for signs of impairment and seek assistance for problems that could lead to impairment. The code of ethics specifically discusses counselors’ obligation to practice self-care to meet their professional responsibilities.

Additional benefits to anyone who practices self-care include:

  • Healthier relationships
  • Higher job satisfaction
  • Better quality of life

5 Tips for Counselors to Practice Self-Care

From engaging in physical activity outside of the office to setting boundaries at work, self-care for counselors can come in many forms.

1. Physical Self-Care Techniques

Taking care of their physical health is extremely important for mental health professionals. Focusing on fundamentals such as exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough sleep form the basis for good self-care.

Also, connecting with nature can enable counselors to feel a connection with the larger world and help them to put issues in perspective, according to a 2021 report in Psychology Today.

2. Mental Self-Care Techniques

Mental health professionals should also employ mental self-care techniques, such as these recommended by

  • Exercising self-compassion can enable counselors to refocus their thinking and become more caring and accepting of themselves.
  • Practicing mindfulness — for example, taking the time to note what each of the five senses is observing — can improve cognition and be emotionally beneficial.
  • Meditating can reduce stress and clear the mind of thoughts that could hinder a counselor’s ability to offer therapy.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that seeking help or therapy from another mental health professional is also an option. For example, SAMHSA encourages crisis counselors who have symptoms of compassion fatigue to seek professional help for themselves.

3. Work-Related Self-Care Techniques

The American Psychological Association notes the importance of self-care techniques that mental health professionals can apply in the workplace, such as:

  • Setting clear boundaries between work and personal time
  • Modifying the size of their client caseloads
  • Changing the types of cases on which they focus

It’s also important for mental health professionals to take time off from their work. This helps them to rebound from feeling overloaded and can improve counselors’ performance when they return to work.

4. Awareness-Building Self-Care Techniques

Counselors can also use a number of awareness-building techniques to stay in touch with what they’re feeling and experiencing, such as:

  • Maintaining a journal to note things they appreciate in their lives and their objectives for the future
  • Intentionally remaining aware of internal feelings, self-talk or judgments
  • Carving out time for self-reflection, both at work and at home

5. Establishing a Routine

Establishing a routine and working time for self-care into that routine is also crucial. This can reduce the tendency to view self-care as a burden, but rather as a necessary component of working as a mental health professional.

Building a Resilient Counseling Workforce

Practicing self-care can help counselors reduce stress, avoid burnout and enhance their capacity to provide support to their clients.

Individuals who are interested in a career in counseling should explore Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program to learn more about how it can help them pursue their professional goals. Offering tracks in clinical mental health and school counseling, the program can set the foundation for a rewarding career. Take the first step with Wake Forest today.

Recommended Readings

The Importance of Counseling

Many Faces of Counseling

What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling & Why Is It Important?


American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology, Compassion Fatigue

American Psychological Association, “Demand for Mental Health Treatment Continues to Increase, Say Psychologists”

American Psychological Association, “The Ethical Imperative of Self-Care”

American Psychological Association, “Self-Care Has Never Been More Important”

Indeed, “26 Reasons to Become a Counselor”

Journal of Counseling & Development. “Stress and Resilience Among Professional Counselors During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, “10 Self-Care Tips for Psychologists, Therapists & Counselors”, “Self-Care for Therapists: Tools & Counselor Self-Care Plan”

The Professional Counselor, “Self-Reported Symptoms of Burnout in Novice Professional Counselors: A Content Analysis”

Psychology Today, “Therapists Share Their Top Tips for Self-Care”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Compassion Fatigue and Self-Care for Crisis Counselors

Verywell Health, “What Is Self-Care and Why Is It Important?”