The following is the first in a series on self-care and preventing practitioner burnout from faculty member Jennafer Vande Vegte, MSPT, BCB-PMD, PRPC. Jennafer is the co-author and co-instructor of the Boundaries, Self-Care, and Meditation course along with Nari Clemons, PT, PRPC.
“I just want you to fix me.” How many times have we heard this statement from our patients? And how do we respond? In my former life as a “rescuer” this statement would be a personal challenge. I wanted to be the fixer, find the solution and identify the thing that no one else had seen yet. Then, if I am being completely honest, bask in the glory of being the “miracle worker” and “never giving up” on my patient.
If you recognize that this attitude was going to run me into some problems, kudos to you. If you are thinking, “well of course, isn’t that your job as a pelvic floor physical therapist?” Please read on.
On my very first job performance review, when it came time to discuss my problem areas my supervisor relayed I was “too nice” and cited some examples: giving a patient a ride home after therapy (it was raining and she would have had to wait for the bus), coming in on Saturdays to care for patients (he was sick and couldn’t make it in during the week but was making really good progress). You get the picture. At the time, I didn’t understand how this could be something I needed to work on. I was going above and beyond and I got so much satisfaction from taking care of others!
Fast forward 10 years and add to my life a husband, two daughters, a teaching job, part time homeschooling, and writing course material. I was an emotional mess. Anxiety was my permanent state of mind. I gave my best to my patients while my family got my meager emotional leftovers. Something had to change and luckily it did. I got help and learned exactly what boundaries are and how to develop as well as enforce them.
There are several resources that discuss professional boundaries in health care, like this from Nursing Made Incredibly Easy. In this particular article, health care professionals are exhorted to stay in the “zone of helpfulness” and avoid becoming under involved or over involved with patients. Health care professionals are also urged to examine their own motivation. Am I using my relationship with my patient to fulfill my own needs? Am I over involved so that I can justify my own worth?
Here are some warning signs that you are straying away from healthy boundaries with patients and becoming over involved:
For some people, certain patients who push professional boundaries will cause the therapist to feel threatened and under activity is the result. This might result in talking badly about the patient to other staff, distancing ourselves, showing disinterest in their case, or failing to utilize best care practices for the patient.
Per Remshard 2012, “When you begin to feel a bit detached, stand back and evaluate your interactions. If you sense that boundaries are becoming blurred in any patient care situation, seek guidance from your supervisor. A sentinel question to ask is: ‘Will this intervention benefit the patient or does it satisfy some need in me?’”
Healthy professional boundaries are imperative for us and for our patients. Boundaries also help prevent burnout. Remshard delineates what healthy boundaries look like:
If you struggle with professional and personal boundaries, you are not alone and you can get support. Consider talking with your supervisor, a counselor, reading a good book on the subject or taking Boundaries, Self-Care, and Meditation, a course offering through Herman and Wallace that was designed to help pelvic health professionals stay healthy and inspired while equipping therapists with new tools to share with their patients.
We hope you will join us for Boundaries, Self-Care, and Meditation this November 9-11, 2019 in San Diego, CA.
Look forward to my next blog where The Rescuer (me) needs Rescuing and learn about the Drama Triangle.
Remshardt, Mary Ann EdD, MSN, RN "Do you know your professional boundaries?" Nursing Made Incredibly Easy!: January/February 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 1 - p 5–6 doi: 10.1097/01.NME.0000406039.61410.a5
While my dad was visiting Michigan, we had the day to ourselves as my kids were in school. I was so excited to have quality time with my dad. Unfortunately it was pouring down rain. We decided on a leisurely brunch and then a movie. Dad chose the movie, “Wind River.” While not a movie I would normally pick, I was happy to go along. A little more than half way through…there was a horribly violent scene against a young women. I panicked, plugged my ears and closed my eyes. Unfortunately some images were burned into the back of my mind. When the movie was over, I remained seated and tears just came. My dad held me while I cried. I was able to calm down and leave the theater, but the images continued to bother me. During the next few days, I made it a priority to care for myself and allow my nervous system to process and heal.
What happened to me? I have never had any traumatic personal experience. Why did I react so strongly? I talked with my therapist about it and she suggested I might have experienced secondary traumatic stress. We know, as pelvic health therapists, we need extra time to hear the “stories” of new patients. We do our best to create a safe space for them so they can trust us and we can help them discover pathways to healing. Yet no one has taught us what we are supposed to do with the traumatic stories our patients share. How are we to cope with holding space for their pain? How do we put on a happy face as we exit the room to get the next patient?
Teaching Capstone over the last few years, Nari Clemons and I have talked with many of you who were feeling emotionally overloaded especially when treating chronic pelvic pain and trauma survivors. Some of you were experiencing job burnout, others were deciding maybe it was time for a career shift, away from the pelvis. We realized something needed to be done as our field was losing talented pelvic health therapists. We have also struggled ourselves with various aspects of our profession.
There are no studies that directly look at job burn out, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue among pelvic health physical therapists. Yet these problems are common among social workers, physicians and other people groups in health care. There are individual as well as institutional risk factors that lead to the development of each. The solution, as one self-help module puts it, is developing resilience. A large part of this skill is making self-care a priority. The basics such as adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise are foundational. Meditation, mindfulness, therapy, and spiritual practices, as well as supportive friends/groups are also imperative.
Nari and I realized that training to develop resilience in therapists was missing. Initially we equipped ourselves to have better boundaries, ground ourselves with meditation, mindfulness and exercise, which enhanced our skills in dealing with complex, chronic patients. We compiled what we have learned and want to share it with you. We would like to invite you to attend Holistic Interventions and Meditation: Boundaries, Self-Care, and Dialogue. We have designed this 3 day course to be partially educational and absolutely experiential. We are going to dig deeper into ways to calm our patient’s and our own nervous systems, explore and practice the latest recommendations on treatment of persistent pain, we will mediate and learn about mediation, play with essential oils, learn some new hands on techniques, and support and encourage one another as we build communication skills. We want you to leave feeling refreshed and equipped to continue to treat patients without losing yourself in the process. We want to invest in you so you can continue the investment you have made in your career and avoid job burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. We invite you to develop the resilience you need for a rewarding career in pelvic health physical therapy by joining us in Tampa this January.
Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C. C. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological services, 11(1), 75.
Meadors, P., Lamson, A., Swanson, M., White, M., & Sira, N. (2010). Secondary traumatization in pediatric healthcare providers: Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 60(2), 103-128.
Sodeke-Gregson, E. A., Holttum, S., & Billings, J. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress in UK therapists who work with adult trauma clients. European journal of psychotraumatology, 4(1), 21869.
Stearns, S., & Benight, C. C. (2016). Organizational Factors in Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress. In Secondary Trauma and Burnout in Military Behavioral Health Providers (pp. 85-113). Palgrave Macmillan US.
Recently I had a patient referred to me for fecal incontinence. She looked so familiar to me and we realized she had seen me before, years ago, for bladder issues. She was a sweet 60 something single woman who had raised 6 kids on her own after her husband left her. We laughed as she remembered something funny I had said back then. Then we got down to business. In recent years my patient “Inez” had been diagnosed with both diabetes and Crohn’s disease. She was managing the Crohn’s very well but her sugars were much harder for her to get under control. When I asked her about her current complaints and symptoms she reported that most days her bowels were perfect. She reported one or two soft easy to pass stools per day. But when she had to leave the house for a doctor appointment, she would have explosive diarrhea. This didn’t happen if she went to the grocery store or to visit a friend. Upon further questioning she realized she was really anxious about her diabetes and her interactions with her medical provider regarding her diabetes had not been positive. She felt frustrated, scared, and powerless.
As a pelvic health PT I could have treated Inez in a variety of ways. With my initial exam I did not see any glaring musculoskeletal issues. I suggested to Inez the possibility that her nervous system was sending the wrong kind of signals to her bowels when she got anxious and that we could address this in PT. Inez agreed that she would like to try this approach. We decided that we would reevaluate after four visits to see if we needed to change the plan. Over four visits I used craniosacral therapy protocols to address nervous system upregulation and tension. I taught Inez relaxation techniques and encouraged 10 or 15 minutes of daily relaxation practice. Inez opened up about her relationship with her kids and how they tended to be takers but not givers. She would get frustrated and feel a bit used at times. We had conversations about boundaries and saying “no” and I shared some of my own experiences and struggles as well. Lastly we talked about how what we think can affect how we feel and what we do. Inez’s faith was important to her. She found a few bible verses that were meaningful to her about fear and anxiety and would repeat those during her daily relaxation time. On her fourth visit, Inez was all smiles. She brought me a jar of her homemade salsa as a graduation present. As we sat down to talk she reported to me that she saw her doctor yesterday. She had no bowel issues. And more than that, as her doctor began to talk over her she said to him, “No. Stop. You are always talking and never listening. I need you to listen to me today.” She went on to explain to him how it worried her that she was not able to control her diabetes well and she didn’t think he was doing enough to help her. Her physician did stop and listen and asked Inez, “what would you like me to do for you?” She asked for a referral to a specialist and he obliged. Inez was thrilled that she was able to manage her anxiety in a way that helped her bowels and to find the courage to confront her doctor to get the care she felt she needed.
As we grow in the knowledge of how the human body works it seems like all roads lead back to the nervous system. All of our treatments and interactions with patients affect the nervous system in one way or another. In our fast paced, stressed out world, finding ways to be intentional in addressing the nervous system can be a game changer for patients (as well as for ourselves). If this is an area you would like to grow in, please consider a new course being offered this January in Tampa, Florida. Participants taking Holistic Interventions and Meditation will experience and explore evidence-based information on strategies to address the nervous system. Topics covered include practical meditation, use of essential oils, supplements, yoga, calming and centering manual techniques and instruction in how to best dialogue with patients struggling with pain, anxiety and the effects of trauma. Nari Clemons and I hope to see you there.
Faurot, K. K. R., Gaylord, S., Palsson, O. S., Garland, E. L., Mann, J. D., & Whitehead, W. E. (2014). 715 Mindfulness Meditation Has Long-Term Therapeutic Benefits in Women With Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Follow-Up Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Gastroenterology, 146(5), S-124.
Kearney, D. J. (2012). Mindfulness meditation for women with irritable bowel syndrome–evidence of benefit from a randomised controlled trial. Evidence-based nursing, 15(3), 80-81.
Keefer, L., & Blanchard, E. B. (2001). The effects of relaxation response meditation on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: results of a controlled treatment study. Behaviour research and therapy, 39(7), 801-811.
As pelvic rehabilitation practitioners, we have all been there, looking ahead to see what patients are on our schedules and recognizing that several will require immense energy from us… all afternoon! Then we prepare ourselves, hoping we have enough stamina to get through, and do a good job to help meet the needs of these patients. Then we still have to go home, spend time with our families, do chores, run errands, and have endless endurance. This can happen day after day. Naturally, as rehabilitation practitioners, we are helpers and problems solvers. However, this requires that we work in emotionally demanding situations. Often in healthcare, we experience burnout. We endure prolonged stress and/or frustration resulting in exhaustion of physical and/or emotional strength and lack of motivation. Do we have any vitality left for ourselves and our loved ones? How can we help ourselves do a good job with our patients, but to also honor our own needs for our energy?
How do we as health care practitioners’ prevent burnout?
Ever hear of “mindfulness” ... I am being facetious. The last several years we have been hearing a lot about “mindfulness” (behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based stress reduction) and its positive effects in helping patients cope with chronic pain conditions. Mindfulness is defined as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. One can practice mindfulness in many forms. Examples of mindfulness-based practice include, body scans, progressive relaxation, meditation, or mindful movement. Many of us pelvic rehabilitation providers teach our patients with pelvic pain some form of mindfulness in clinic, at home, or both, to help them holistically manage their pain. Whether it is as simple as diaphragmatic breathing, awareness of toileting schedules/behavior, or actual guided practices for their home exercise program, we are teaching mindfulness behavioral therapy daily.
Why don’t we practice what we preach?
As working professionals, we are stressed, tired, our schedules too full, and we feel pain too, right? Mindfulness behavioral therapy interventions are often used in health care to manage pain, reduce stress, and control anxiety. Isn’t the goal of using such interventions to improve health, wellness, and quality of life? Mindfulness training for healthcare providers can reduce burnout by decreasing emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and increasing sense of personal accomplishment. Additionally, it can improve mood, empathy for patients, and communication.1 All of these improvements, leads to improved patient satisfaction.
Let’s take what we teach our patients every day and start applying it to ourselves. An informal way to integrate mindfulness is by building it into your day. Such as when washing hands in between patients, or before you walk into the room to greet the patient. However, sometimes we have a need for a tangible strategy to combat stress and the desire to be guided by an expert with this strategy.2 I think one of the easiest ways to begin practicing mindfulness is to try a meditation application (app) on a smart phone or home computer. Meditation is one of the most common or popular ways to practice mindfulness and is often a nice starting point to try meditation for yourself or to suggest to a motivated patient. Many popular guided meditation apps include Headspace, Insight Timer, and Calm, just to name a few. Generally, these guided meditation apps have free versions and paid upgrades. Challenge yourself to complete a 10-minute guided meditation app, daily, for three weeks, and see how you feel. It takes three weeks to make a new habit. Hopefully, guided meditation will be a new habit to help you be present with your patients and improve your awareness and energy. After all, how can we help others heal, if we can’t help ourselves?
To learn more about ways, you as a professional can help yourself or your patients with meditation, consider attending Meditation for Patients and Providers.
1)Krasner, M.S., Epstein, R.M., Beckman, H., Suchman, A.L., Chapman, B., Mooney C.J., et al. (2009). Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians. JAMA 302(12):1284–93.
2)Willgens, A. M., Craig, S., DeLuca, M., DeSanto, C., Forenza, A., Kenton, T., ... & Yakimec, G. (2016). Physical Therapists' Perceptions of Mindfulness for Stress Reduction: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Physical Therapy Education, 30(2).