by Tim Brunson, PhD
There is a cost paid by people who work in the healing professions and occupations. Whether drawn to these vocations by altruism, compassion, or other motivations, each practitioner runs the risk of contracting adverse mental and physical consequences. The ineffective coping strategies used by practitioners – coupled with the necessity of working long hours – may serve to complicate matters. They not only fail to mitigate problems caused by constant exposure to negativity, they in fact further accelerate the onset of the resulting costs that are too often inherent in their work. Furthermore these typical responses detract from the environment and experience of clients and patients, resulting in degradation of speed of healing and even potentially contributing to the continuation of their illnesses.
In any mental or physical healing practice or institution, the administrative, support, and clerical staff, as well as the professionals, are constantly bombarded by a procession of suffering patients. Like tuning forks, humans have the tendency to entrain and adapt. In healing and helping environments, this means that providers are very likely to adjust their minds and bodies into an unhealthy protective mode. This has the tendency to trigger negative emotions, stimulate chronic sympathetic responses, induce low heart rate coherence, and suppress their immune system. The resulting adverse affects on their health and personal relationships are potentially so severe as to warrant increased attention.
This problem is much more prevalent than one may think. Just about every time that I visit a hospital, clinic, or medical doctor's office, I immediately notice a general level of depression in the waiting areas. The staff remains behind their protective barriers, which are normally adorned with a plethora of signs informing patients what is required of them and what is going to be refused them. Rarely do I see patients greeted by smiles, or made to feel that they are in a warm, compassionate, and healing environment. As patients process through the system, the staff (and many of the professionals) rarely make eye contact with the patient or allow empathy to occur. Obviously, the medical ritual often includes establishing official and protective barriers designed to protect providers from the ravages of patients' negativity.
Likewise, staff and clinicians involved in mental health experience maladaptive responses. For instance, just a few weeks ago a Fort Hood military psychiatrist committed the worst mass murder ever on a US military post. While investigators and news commentators are still attempting to decipher his motivations, little attention is paid to the fact that Major Hasan's primary duty was to treat soldiers who were having difficulties coping with their wartime experiences. Day in and day out he experienced a procession of horrific experiences marching through his head. When coupled with his own conflicts, his protective response may have eventually led him to a breakdown. Those attempting to explain this atrocity often overlook the impact that his professional responsibilities had on his mental health. How do clinicians and their staff typically react to negativity in what is supposed to be a healing environment? I have already mentioned the tendency to create barriers between them and their patients and clients. Even the concept of professional boundaries, which are mandated by associations and licensure authorities and is ostensibly designed to protect the public, is actually another form of barrier meant to protect the practitioner. At the extreme, these barriers can even take the form of disparaging and disrespectful slang or other pejoratives being used to describe those that they profess to serve.
Another protection strategy is that of hiding behind the technology of their trade. This includes having a predominant viewpoint that what they do is a science rather than a healing art. I remember a wonderful presentation by Carl Hammerschlag, MD, an Ivy League trained psychiatrist who spent a considerable number of years working in Native American hospitals. Once he was confronted by a holy man who was undergoing cardiac treatment. The holy man asked Dr. Hammerschlag whether or not he was a healer. Having a medical degree from a prestigious school that trained him to excel as a scientist, he asserted that. Then he holy man replied, "But are you a healer?" During his experience with the Native Americans Dr. Hammerschlag learned that it takes much more than a medical degree to make a person a healer.
Over the years I have had the privilege of meeting many clinicians that are truly healers. I include among them Dr. Hammeschlag and others such as Bill O'Hanlon, LMFT, Norm Shealy, MD, PhD, Carolyn Daitch, PhD, and Maggie Phillips, PhD. Of course, experiences with my students, who include medical and mental health clinicians from six continents, have shown me that it is possible to maintain a level of compassion and empathy while alleviating the suffering in others. By learning from these healers, I have concluded that it is possible to successfully practice our professions while being shielded from negativity. So, as I consider the inappropriate barriers and the mental and physical health problems resulting from dealing with negativity, I go back to these rare and wonderful healers to discover just why they succeed when many others seem to be challenged.
One thing that I have noticed is their energy level seems to be extremely high. By energy I mean the strength of their compassion, their empathy, and their love. It seems that when the gates of a dam are opened up, water flows from the high side to the low. When a client or patient is suffering, they are in desperate need of healing energy. When a clinician is full of healing energy, they seem to be rather immune from allowing the negative energy to flow upstream and cause problems for them.
This healing energy has many sources. Once after a presentation about this topic, a lady came up to me and proudly claimed that the source of her energy was her strong faith in Jesus. Indeed, to be in her presence just made me feel warm inside. Some healers profess that they are in tune with some mystical power of the universe. Others just seem to have a deep abiding feeling of love for others. No matter what they declare to be the source of their healing energy, still it seems to emanate from them.
True healers also tend to cherish themselves. They realize the necessity of maintaining balance their lives. This includes spiritual, family, continuing development, and professional/business. When helping others, being congruent and whole as a person helps tremendously.
The optimal health care practitioner is a healer who creates an environment that is conducive to healing. Sure, the science and technology taught in universities may relieve symptoms and even occasionally address underlying causes. However, does healing occur? Should one consider the root of the word health, they would find that it means whole. When the practitioner is not whole, rarely will the patient become whole. In those cases the only way that they can protect themselves is to create barriers that are contrary to the healing relationship. And those barriers do not protect them from subsequent physical and mental manifestations, to include illnesses, addictions, ruined relationships, and even suicides. Perhaps if the medical and psychological professions finally realize that healing starts in the heart and not the head, then just maybe they can become more successful and more congruent with their avowed purposes.
The International Hypnosis Research Institute is a member supported project involving integrative health care specialists from around the world. We provide information and educational resources to clinicians. Dr. Brunson is the author of over 150 self-help and clinical CD's and MP3's.