Prime & Safe: Counselors, Take care of Yourself First. A Personal Wellness Plan as a Counselor by Tony Astro

With the strain of our job as counselors, health and fitness or wellness is very vital to the success of our counseling. Vicarious traumatization (VT)  also known as compassion fatigue could be a result if counselors do not have an appropriate Personal Wellness Plan.  As counselors, we have to be empathetic, and this kindhearted engagement with disturbed clients and their reports of traumatic experiences sometimes drains us.  Here are acronyms I created to make it easier for you to remember:  Prime Safe: 
PRIME:  Physical, Religion, Intellectual, Mental and Emotional
As a prior military Navy career counselor, physical exercise is mandatory considering the remarkable amount of pressure of deployments, combat and everyday duty at an average of 12 hours/day.  Research has shown that regular physical training or exercise serves to protect the immune system.  Physical activities (workout, yoga, breathing) serves as an acceptable way to express anxiety, anger, frustration, feeling out of control, and helplessness (Culligan & Sedlacek, 1980; DeBenedette, 1988; Kirkcaldy & Shephard, 1990; Rosato, 1990; Sutherland & Cooper, 1990).
So for the first proactive measure, a physically strenuous workout twice or thrice a week is essential including a healthy regimen diet. Being said is different from being done. With this hands-on practice of good daily habits, it needs a robust and disciplined control to do it. Being on a team (being in the military is much more accessible, speaking from my 23-year experience) makes it more manageable compared to be an independent counselor because of groupthink accountability. Without accountability or a partner, wavering of this plan is imminent.

Effective counseling is not doable when our wellbeing is out of shape: physically or mentally.  Moreover, so mental condition should also be kept in a way by meditation, journal, yoga, proper breathing or merely reading a great book (I do all of them and journal seems to be the most effective for me second to prayer).  As a second proactive measure, I have tried most of them and prayer including journaling is the one that made a good effect on me for my wellness.
Praying is a dialogue between you and an unseen counselor. The expression in voice or mind aids the counselor to profess issues or anxiety including VT or compassion fatigue. It goes along with journaling, and the only difference is written scripts maybe read interchangeably as counselor or counselee while praying is unwritten yet speaking to an “imaginary” counselor depending on counselors’ religious conviction.

SAFE:  Social, Abilities, Financial & Environmental
Every year from 2005 to 2013, I attended the Navy Counselors Association held in different parts of the country with almost  700 Navy Counselors networking for a one week conference learning new methods, ideas, regulations about the profession in career counseling. The network of contacts adds or gives each counselor new perspective on how individual counselors do their particular job even though they have the career counseling standards posted online or publicized in instructions. This type of events, as well as local monthly gathering with like-minded people at least week, can build confidence, improve work attitude and personal wellness.

Proper use of social media groups can also help us get the right connection.  Clean your social media “environment” by filtering all negative clutter in your Facebook pages and try using LinkedIn connections to get you an online mentor. 
Counselors cannot work all the time single-handedly. We all need reinforcement from those who have been through the practice of counseling. Their experience will help sustain both our physical and mental capacity.  Joining a social media group and be active on its benefits as well as face to face networking.

Write a blog, share your experience and don’t be afraid to make a wrong grammar or wrong assumptions,  it takes practice, and soon you can build influence to your followers you never expected, I did.

If we have issues going on with our family and financial wellness, can we focus on giving the same advice to others? It is difficult unless we have been through it and our mind is clear or stress-free. When we moved from California to Connecticut then back to California in a span of 7 years, it took a significant financial toll in our family as we purchased houses in both places and we could not get a renter and housing market crash.  We were devastated and if affected how I did my counseling and eventually my promotion to higher rank as a counselor.  My wellness was unresolved, and it changed a big part of my job, not necessarily counseling my clients, but it was later fixed through proper budgeting, joining a group called Crown Ministry and having a financial advisor.

The bottom line is our overall personal wellness:  physical, financial, spiritual, social and mental health is vital for us as a counselor.  We have to take care of ourselves first before we can do it for others and that is not a cliche.  Our goal is the same for the client and practicing what we advocate during our counseling will be evident to all clients (or patients for clinical counselors).  Now that you have your personal wellness in place you are all set to talk to your client more efficiently and sincerely ask:  How are you doing and how is your personal well being?  What are your skills and passions?  

Culligan, M.J., & Sedlacek, K. (1980). How to avoid stress before it kills you. New York: Gramercy.
DeBenedette, V. (1988). Getting fit for life: Can exercise reduce stress? The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 16, 185-200.
Kirkcaldy, B.D., & Shephard, R.J. (1990). Therapeutic implications of exercise. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 21, 165-184.
Patrick, P. (2007). Contemporary issues in counseling. Boston, MA: Pearson


  1. Subject: Re:Week 5: Personal Wellness Plan (Synopsis)Reply to Tony Astro Topic: u05d1 Plan Synopsis and Feedback
    Author: Debra Phebus Date: November 5, 2008 8:22 PM

    Great plan and synopsis. I agree that exercise and a healthy diet are where a plan for stress starts. I enjoy watching or attending footabll games with my husband on Sundays. Have you thought about the proactive strategies of a hobby, video games, art therapy, music, getting lost in a fun book or magazine or a quick break at work with a little solitaire on the computer? Everyone is different and each of us need to find the ways that are best to help us relax and de-stress. My dad just spent 6 weks in the hospital and he enjoyed the paddle with the ball attached as a break from boredom in the hospital. Debra Phebus

  2. Subject: Re:Week 5: Personal Wellness Plan (Synopsis) by Tony Astro Topic: u05d1 Plan Synopsis and Feedback
    Author: MaryKate Owens Date: November 7, 2008 9:36 PM

    Tony, You have a great wellness plan in place. I admire your emphasis of the importance of both mental and physical health. What would you do to maintain this plan if you did not have the support of your Navy colleagues? I currently do yoga and journaling and find them great stress relievers. I can also relate to your comments about needing social support. In my current position I travel all week and have minimal contact with coworkers or supervisors. . Supervision has been found to buffer the hazards associated with burnout (Sprang, et al., 2007).
    Good luck in implementing your wellness plan!

    Mary Kate Owens


    Sprang, G., Clark, J. J., & Whitt-Woosley, A. (2007). Compassion fatigue, compassion satisfaction, and burnout: Factors impacting a professional’s quality of life. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 12, 259-280.

  3. Subject: Re:Week 5: Personal Wellness Plan (Synopsis) by Tony Astro Topic: u05d1 Plan Synopsis and Feedback
    Author: Karen Kizer Date: November 8, 2008 4:09 PM

    I read with great interest your synopisis to the wellness plan. I was exceptionally interested in your reference to the power of prayer, and how this is one type of 'counselor or counseling' that can be very productive, and reinforcing.
    With your focus on the physical aspect, the benefit of exercise, which I also agree with, do you know of anything else that could assist with the physical component if one is not able to participate in such vigorous workouts?
    karen kizer

  4. Subject: Re:Week 5: Personal Wellness Plan (Synopsis) by Tony Astro Topic: u05d1 Plan Synopsis and Feedback
    Author: Tony Astro Date: November 8, 2008 11:12 PM

    Thanks for taking your time to read my discussion and making a comment Karen, here is “this learner’s personal judgment” (i will not even quote a reference, APA style).

    We hear the phrase “mind, body and soul” in many fields of life and social science. My experience is they are all one link together, that is, one can’t function well when one is under strain unless one compensates another.
    I’ve seen physically resilient person yet with fragile mind and soul, it is almost a cliché. But there are times when one affects the others. For instance, when I am under stress with work physically, it is difficult for me to “pray” and exercise mentally (mind & soul).
    I would say if one is not able to participate in such vigorous workouts, he/she must have ways to do it mentally and spiritually. That is when “Total Wellness plan” is very important for us counselors because we give advice to others on how to be well in every aspect of someone’s life: physical, mental and to some “shrewd people” who still needs a scientific explanation: spiritual.

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