After graduation, there comes a moment when you realize exactly how much of the rest of your life you鈥檒l be spending at work. It鈥檚 a big, scary, welcome-to-adulthood awakening, and 鈥 for many of us 鈥 a kick in the butt to go after what you really want. But the truth is, even once you land your dream job (or quit your day job聽and create your own),聽work always comes with stress.聽That鈥檚 why it鈥檚聽a great idea to bring your professional life into your next therapy session,聽for the sake of your mental health and your career ambitions.

stressed woman at work

when and how to get started

Remember Mandy Moore鈥檚 proactive approach to therapy?聽That鈥檚 also a great way to stop work issues in their tracks.

鈥淭hink of regular sessions with a professional counselor as preventative health care,鈥 says聽Dr. David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association (ACA). 鈥淛ust as it is helpful to get an annual checkup with your physician and to see the dentist twice a year, seeing a professional counselor can help prevent stress from becoming distress (the point at which stress interferes in your life).鈥

Dr. Kaplan notes that companies鈥 benefits plans should聽include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). 鈥淓AP counselors will provide no-cost counseling to employees and help with approaches and interventions designed to prevent mental health issues from interfering with work,鈥 he says.

If you鈥檙e self-employed or not eligible for benefits,聽you still have options. The ACA鈥檚 website suggests searching the Therapy Directory from聽Psychology Today, which聽lets you聽filter local therapists by insurance聽accepted and issues treated, including career guidance. There are also online counseling platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace, which might be right for a limited budget or schedule.

What to talk about

鈥淎 professional counselor will explore the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are occurring when you feel under stress,鈥 says Dr. Kaplan. Workplace stress triggers might be related to your environment, your coworkers, upcoming career benchmarks, or outside influences. Here are a few of the issues聽you might want to work through.

聽1. Asking for a Raise:聽鈥淲e live in a society where it is generally taboo to talk about money, so it makes sense that is hard to ask for a raise,鈥 says聽Julia Lawrence, LMSW, a therapist at A Good Place Psychotherapy. She suggests role-playing in therapy the conversation you plan to have with your boss.

鈥淚t can be helpful to have a script beforehand,鈥 she says. 鈥淚n role-playing with a client, I (as their boss) sadly inform my 鈥檈mployee鈥 that the company is not able to give them a raise at this time. This helps an individual recognize that the worst-case scenario is usually simply that they are in the same position, and that they are capable of managing the negative emotions that such a scenario might raise.鈥

2. Leaving a Bad Situation:聽鈥淚 often hear people describe their workplace as 鈥榯oxic,'鈥 says Lawrence. But with further discussion, the underlying reasons for this perception are usually more benign: 鈥淚 find they often use this word when they feel overworked, dislike their colleagues, or feel micromanaged.鈥

Lawrence explains that a therapist can identify patterns in your workplace stories that may change your perspective. 鈥渇 you are describing a lot of workplace conflict and the only common factor in these issues is you 鈥 then there鈥檚 a chance this problem is not specific to your workplace and this issue will follow you wherever you go,鈥 she says. 鈥淚f you鈥檙e describing having to work a ton on weekends or a boss who makes inappropriate comments, your problems may be truly particular to your current employment.鈥

Whether or not the problem is one you can solve, a therapist can help you聽prepare for your next steps.

3. Dealing With an Office Bully 鈥 or Anyone Who Needs to Hear Your Voice:Gwendolyn Nelson-Terry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, California, suggests working on assertive communication to聽stand up against an office bully. 鈥淎ssertive communication means that you use clear, direct communication in a manner that allows you to express yourself or stand up for yourself while not putting the other person down,鈥 she says. 鈥淲hen one uses assertive communication they are being direct, honest, and clear in what they are stating.鈥

Nelson-Terry also suggests practicing tone of voice and body posture with your therapist, to ensure that these support your words.聽鈥淎ssertive communication can help you to improve your feelings of confidence. When people use assertive communication they tend to feel better about themselves, report that they get their needs met for frequently by a partner, and report feeling that they are listened to more often in the workplace.鈥

4. Improving Self-Esteem:Self-esteem issues can be difficult to pinpoint, Nelson-Terry explains. 鈥淚t tends to manifest in small ways,鈥 she says, pointing out that聽issues may build up over time. 鈥淭hey tend to come to therapy saying things more like, 鈥業 don鈥檛 feel comfortable at work,鈥 鈥業鈥檓 angry because I鈥檝e worked so hard and I got passed up on a promotion,鈥 鈥業 feel invisible. It鈥檚 like no one knows I鈥檓 there.'鈥

But聽in therapy, you can gain greater understanding of these feelings: how they impact you at work and how you see yourself. For example, Nelson-Terry notes, if someone feels invisible, there may be more to the story. 鈥淭hat person might have begun to withdraw. They might have stopped speaking up in meetings or are keeping ideas to themselves when they normally would be someone to give input, share ideas, and work on big projects.鈥

To overcome self-esteem issues, Nelson-Terry explains, you can work with your therapist on 鈥渋dentifying limiting beliefs and challenging and resolving those beliefs.鈥

5. Overcoming Negative Automatic Thoughts:聽鈥淎utomatic thoughts happen so quickly and can be any range of things from 鈥業 am going to get fired鈥 to 鈥楾hey hate me,'鈥 says Dr. Nicole Bernard Washington (AKA Dr. Nicole),聽a psychiatrist and executive coach. 鈥淎 simple mistake at work or a coworker not saying hello can be the event that leads to the giant leap of the negative automatic thought.鈥 Negative automatic thoughts are extremely common, and they can be hugely harmful to your mental health.

But, says Dr. Nicole, a mental health professional can help you learn to recognize and confront your automatic thoughts. 鈥淗aving a handle on this can lead to improvement of overall functioning,鈥 she explains. 鈥淵ou can do your job, be more efficient, and interact more appropriately with others when you aren鈥檛 bogged down with negative emotions that come from negative automatic thoughts.鈥

6. Finding Your Path:聽鈥淭aking control of your time requires you to get very clear on what鈥檚 important to you,鈥 says Bianca L. Rodriguez, MA, Ed.M, LMFT. 鈥淚 recommend clients create a pie chart that indicates what percentage of time they spend on various activities. Then I ask them to list their top five priorities and create another 鈥榠deal鈥 pie chart that shows how they would like to spend their time. This visual can really help to highlight the discrepancies. Then we devise a plan together to get closer to their 鈥榠deal.'鈥

Rodriguez explains that聽if you find yourself procrastinating at work, it might be a sign that you鈥檙e in the wrong field. 鈥淢ost people create extensive 鈥榯o do鈥 lists and rarely get to the majority of the items,鈥 she says.

7.聽Digging Deeper to Solve Larger Problems:聽鈥淲ork relationships can offer insight into interpersonal patterns that play out in other aspects of our lives,鈥 says Rodriguez. 鈥淔or instance, your boss may trigger your feelings about our parents as they served as the authority figures growing up.鈥

Kaplan offers a specific example involving a stressful boss: 鈥淲hen asked about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when dealing with the boss, the answer might be, 鈥業 start thinking that she is just like my critical mom. I feel inadequate, just like I did as a kid. I do everything possible to then avoid my boss for days as I used to do with my mom.'鈥 This kind of reaction, Kaplan explains, might prompt your therapist to help you resolve some issues from childhood.

By tackling interpersonal changes at work, Rodriguez points out,聽you鈥檒l also see a more general impact on your other relationships.

Has your therapist helped your work life? Tell us about it @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)