Feature

Leonard Schwartzburd, PhD, a Berkeley, Calif., psychologist, was absolutely convinced that he was having a heart attack. His chest was aflame and his arms were growing numb. So he rushed to a cardiologist only to discover that his high-stress conduct accounted for the physical symptoms.

Not that Schwartzburd didn't have good reason to be brimming over with anger. He was a psychologist for correctional officers at San Quentin, the California maximum security prison where everyone is angry or afraid most of the time. For Schwartzburd, life was trying to negotiate between one immutable force and another. Guards and prisoners seldom agreed on anything.

Schwartzburd had joined the legion of psychologists who try so hard to help their clients that they neglect their own well-being. Whether such behavior results in burnout or just anger born of impatience, many psychologists suffer from trying to cram two lives into one. As slaves to an unforgiving clock, they tell themselves there is not enough time to do anything about their own difficulties.

"We talk [to our patients] about exercise, diet, the need for quiet time," says Garland DeNelsky, PhD, of the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Cleveland. "We try to instruct clients on many ways of thinking and behaving, which lead to stress reduction. But what about us?"

Along with the stress of busy schedules, psychologists can also become overwhelmed by their clients' problems. In fact, psychologists use the term "vicarious traumatization" for colleagues who begin feeling their own sense of loss or stress while working with people experiencing traumatic loss due to accidents or crime, says Karen Saakvitne, PhD, a member of APA's Board of Professional Affairs' Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance.

Her prescription for herself: "Once I talk to a colleague, I get my perspective back. If I try to keep the perspective between me and me, I can't keep my perspective."

She also requires the 11 clinicians she supervises at the Traumatic Stress Institute in South Windsor, Conn., to attend their own psychotherapy-- preventing a crisis before it develops.

If not full-on psychotherapy, psychologists should set up regular meetings with a trusted colleague, recommends Mary Anne Norfleet, PhD, of the Stanford Medical School, who is also a member of the advisory committee.

Schwartzburd joined a support group led by Meyer Friedman, MD, the San Francisco cardiologist who first wrote about Type-A behavior shortly after World War II.

"I didn't tell anyone I was a psychologist," recalls Schwartzburd. "I resolved to be patient and try to modify my own behavior."

One thing he learned was that the basic premise by which he lived his life--that whatever success he had achieved was through his drive--was false. People can succeed without working themselves into a frenzy.

Through weekly sessions, he learned to deal with his anger and with time pressures--he even stopped wearing his wristwatch for a week.

Cleveland psychologist DeNelsky has a list of suggestions for avoiding burnout:

  • On the day you are not seeing patients, don't follow a rigid time schedule. Disconnect those electronic devices that add stress to your life under the pretext of keeping you informed--the beeper, e-mail, the fax machine and the cellular phone. And let the answering machine answer the phone.

  • Develop an activity or hobby that is far removed from psychology and patient care.

  • Make friendships with persons in unrelated areas.

  • Learn to say no to extra commitments.

"We tell our patients this all the time, but do we really do it?" asks DeNelsky. "It is remarkably easy to get overloaded by adding a commitment here, an involvement there."

However, De Nelsky concedes, "Neither these nor any other techniques are guaranteed to manage stress to such a degree that it never again is a problem. But if they're employed regularly, they can go a long way toward making our professional lives and our personalities a bit more enjoyable and a bit less frantic."

A key to avoiding job burnout is being able to turn off the job at home, says Lyle Miller, PhD, a stress management psychologist who runs the Biobehavioral Treatment Center in Brookline, Mass., and admits to being a bit driven himself.

"Most psychologists work at home," he says. "The computer is going or they do their endless paperwork in off hours when it really should be off."

What should be "on" at home and at work is the capacity for humor, says DeNelsky.

"A problem that seems horribly serious may seem a little less so when we are able to joke about it," he says.

Humor is "useful, if not downright imperative," he adds. "Psychologists should start off the day with a joke or sharing funny experiences with family friends and co-workers. Humor can help you place yours and other people's oddities in the proper perspective."