Managing Vicarious Trauma Across Professions

Archivist, oral historian, and genocide scholar Tim Hensley discusses his approach to managing traumatic material in the workplace:

Most caregiving and reporting professionals (health care providers, reporters, first responders, clergy, social workers, legal aid, and many more) interact directly or indirectly with the traumatic experiences of others at some point in our careers. But events of the past few months have increased this likelihood for all of us, in some cases with the force of a fire hose.

Furthermore, we are all dealing with our own increased stress and trauma, which leaves us with less bandwidth available to absorb the anguish of others.

In order for you to stay afloat and continue your trauma-oriented work, it is necessary to limit your amount of exposure to your carrying capacity.

This excerpt shows Tim’s method, which is organized, structured, and visual:

 


20200525_233237


 

While I personally don’t categorize sessions and activities visually in the  way Tim does, I do always maintain an idea of which sessions and activities are likely to contain material and experiences that are heavier to carry, and I spread my scheduling out in a similar way across a given week.

If you are in a caregiving or reporting profession, you may already be using a similar approach, whether explicitly or intuitively. If not, you might wish to examine your own process and how it is affecting you.

How can you know when it’s too much to carry? You have to notice how you’re feeling! This sounds incredibly simple, and yet many of us frequently push past our actual capacity into burnout territory. This can lead to illness, injury, depression, suicidality, and other life-disrupting outcomes. You may think it’s okay to push on–until it’s suddenly not.

It’s a case of “simple but not easy,” especially if you have always been taught to push through physical or mental discomfort in order to complete tasks. It’s considerably worse if you’ve always been taught you must put your own needs dead last after others’ needs.

Now is the time to de-condition that harmful approach!

You have gone beyond your carrying capacity if you are feeling:

  • Exhausted
  • Irritable
  • Weepy
  • Resentful
  • Stress-headachey
  • Pessimistic
  • Hopeless
  • Angry
  • Anxious
  • Disconnected
  • Dissociated
  • Craving substances

Once you are able to determine which pieces of your work tend to make these kinds of symptoms worse, that is when you can plan how to schedule your heaviest interactions such that you can recover in between.

Keep in mind, what may be light for someone else may sink you, and vice versa. This is never about what you “should” be able to carry–it’s about how it actually affects you in practice. No one can tell someone else what they “should” be able to bear.

Which brings me to the next difficulty for many: what if you are not the one doing the scheduling? What if the fire hose is never turned off? This is a physically and emotionally dangerous situation. It means that you’re in an environment that does not allow you to protect yourself, recover from injury, steward your health. If you are able to seriously discuss the issue with someone in charge, that may be helpful. But if they are dismissive, it is likely a situation that will be harmful to you in the long or not-so-long run.

What does it mean to recover in between? Again, this sounds simple but it is not always easy. You do things that help you feel better!

  • Sleep! And more sleep!
  • Basic exercise: walking, biking, yard work
  • Adequate nutrition
  • Enjoyable “vegging”
  • Creative outlet: music, gardening, knitting, hobby electronics, baking
  • And most important of all: someone supportive to tell about your experiences

This does not mean you must violate confidentiality or your HIPAA obligations or the sanctity of the confessional. It means to have someone with whom you can exchange understanding of how hard it is to do what you do, and express honestly how it’s affecting you. This may be a coworker ally,  spouse, friend, clergy, or therapist. But it’s very important and a big part of lightening the heaviness.

If you are not used to taking care of yourself “like you matter,” it is time to start practicing that skill right now, so you do not fall into burnout and illness.

Remember, you can’t give to others from an empty well! ❤

 

depositphotos_15861195-stock-photo-water-well

 

You Are Not Your Trauma

 

An early experience of trauma can have effects that you may not start experiencing until adulthood. It can feel “crazy”! But having PTSD symptoms doesn’t mean that you will always feel that way. It means that you have emotions and reactions that are ready to be processed so that you can begin healing.

While healing from trauma can be a lifelong process, you can often start feeling better in many ways right away! You are still a whole, worthy human being, rich in the capacity to enjoy life in your own ways.

If you are ready to start processing, please review our quick chart to see how you can access our therapeutic services from anywhere in Pennsylvania!

 

Keep Yourself Sane When Things Feel Crazy

 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed about recent events. There are a lot of really overwhelming, scary, and depressing things happening! What can you do to maintain your balance, stay grounded, and keep a sense of optimism?

Dr. Glenda Russell is a licensed psychologist and researcher in Colorado with whom I had the great fortune to work during my training in Michigan. In the short video below, she has some really important and reassuringly concrete things to say about moving forward during frightening times.

This clip is only five minutes long, but it can really help.

 

Did you find this message encouraging? I hope so, and I hope you have friends and loved ones to connect with!

If you need additional support dealing with symptoms of depression, PTSD, or anxiety from a qualified therapist, please review our quick chart to see how you can access our therapeutic services from anywhere in Pennsylvania!

You Are Already Worthy!

 

Calling yourself “lazy” or “unproductive” is usually an internalized message of shame from your formative years. The message is “If you would just ‘will’ yourself to do more, then you would be acceptable and worthy. Otherwise, you must just be a bad, unworthy person.”

The fact is, you are already acceptable and worthy, without doing anything to “earn” that worth. Now, you might feel better or happier if you were doing certain things, and they are certainly worth trying, to see if that is the case.

But feeling terrible about yourself is not a good motivator for anyone! In fact, it is likely to worsen your exhaustion, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and concentration, which will make it even harder to do whatever it is you would like to be doing.

If you are ready to start healing your self-worth, please review our quick chart to see how you can access our therapeutic services from anywhere in Pennsylvania!

 

A Peaceful Meditation Day to All!

The physical and health benefits of meditation have been noted for years and repeatedly validated by science. You don’t have to switch to an entirely new lifestyle in order to practice meditation! There are many ways to begin practicing, a little at a time.

Many people with anxiety do very well with the structured approach taken by Headspace (Andy Puddicombe). With simple graphics that clearly explain physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects of meditation, you will find the process easy to understand and implement. Even if you do not get a subscription and only use the first sessions that are free, it is well worth a look:

Another meditation tool that many clients report being highly satisfied with is Insight Timer:

And if you’re ready to go a little deeper into the emotional aspects of meditation, I highly recommend anything at all by Tara Brach!

 

Yoga Through the Lens of Western Science

Our physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects are interconnected and interdependent. This is the case whether we use a psychodynamic approach or a cognitive-behavioral psychological approach. If we are experiencing (noticing) dysfunction in one area, the whole system is actually affected. The good news about this is that by changing things in one aspect, we can affect other aspects as well.

This does not mean that we can simply “think away illness” or that if we can exercise “perfectly” (whatever that would be!) then our thoughts and feelings will just “snap out of it” into rationality and/or bliss. What it does mean, however, is that when we gradually move our habits towards health and balance in one aspect, the other aspects will also move more towards health and balance.

That means when behaviors become healthier, thoughts and feelings become healthier. When thoughts become healthier, feelings and behaviors become healthier. When feelings become healthier, behaviors and thoughts become healthier. A change in any one of them changes all of them!

When we consider the interconnected areas of behavior, cognition, and emotion, the most easily and directly influenced aspect is behavior. We can change what we do, which can help to change what we think and how we feel.

Remember, with any behavior change, the idea is not instant change, but rather successive approximation: doing things a bit more like the goal behavior, and then when that sticks, we do it a bit more like the goal behavior. Attempting drastic changes is less likely to create long-term change than creating and conditioning gradual habit change.

This really interesting clip discusses some ways in which developing–for example–a yoga practice can influence not only thoughts and feelings but also our bodies down to the cellular and chemical level:

 

ILC&P Hiking Sessions Begin Next Week

 

Trail through the forest at Lancaster County Central Park, Penns
Lancaster County Park

Beginning next week, ILC&P is expanding services to include hiking sessions for adult clients in the Lancaster area!

Hiking (or strolling!) sessions will be conducted in a public hiking area during limited daylight hours. You may walk at whatever pace is comfortable for you; athleticism not required! Prospective new clients must attend a standard in-office intake assessment before scheduling hiking sessions.

I am an all-weather walker! Hiking sessions are rain or shine unless conditions are bad enough to qualify for school cancellation.

Clinical service fees and discounts are the same for hiking sessions as for in-office sessions. (For example, if someone qualifies for Open Path sessions in person, they would qualify for Open Path hiking sessions).

Further details will be posted, but clients need not wait to contact us regarding scheduling or with any questions.

 

~Compare therapy session options~

 

Mental Health: Accepting Healing Over Time

 

Valarie Ward has written a good breakdown of how pop mental health writing is often not only unhelpful, but perpetuates stigma and judgment. Treatment–whether chemical, cognitive, or situational–can support and help to heal mental health, but it’s not a magical instant “cure.”

It’s useful to find the type of treatment or intervention that is most helpful and supportive to YOU. It doesn’t mean you’re “doing it wrong” if you still have symptoms or flare-ups. It means that humans are biological, not mechanical objects that can have new parts swapped in for an instant fix. [See: PTSD as chronic illness]

There is nothing wrong with trying to find things that help you feel better and function better. We encourage you to explore treatment modalities!

But the danger in chasing a “cure” can be the idea that if it’s not “cured,” then we just aren’t trying hard enough. Plenty of people with mental illness and injury hear this message from well-meaning friends, family, and loved ones, though sometimes in different words.

“You’ve been in therapy for weeks/months/years, why isn’t it helping?”: If it’s truly not helping, then of course try something else, or something additional!

But often this really means “I’m upset that you’re not ‘cured’ yet.” Unfortunately, we may also internalize these messages ourselves, which just means that we have found another “should” with which to beat ourselves up; another way to use perfectionistic standards against ourselves.

Instead, notice how far you’ve come since you started working on your healing. Even if it has only been a few days, I bet you already learned some things that help you to comfort yourself or to reframe your thoughts in a healthy way that hurts less!

And if you’ve been working on healing for a while, I bet you are experiencing more days during which you can get out of bed. Or get out of the house. Or days you can do some meaningful work or play. Or days you can spend time with your children. Or fewer days spent in the hospital. Or a better ability to see yourself having a future. Or a few more relationships that are going a little better than they used to. I bet you’ve already done a lot more healing than you think!

So instead of beating up on yourself for not suddenly being “cured” or “fixed,” take stock of how your healing really is progressing, and be proud of yourself. ❤

 

Happy Earth Day!

We hope you are out enjoying the wonderful sunshine in our environment on this beautiful Earth Day. It’s one of the best self-care interventions around!

Sierra Club has more suggestions for taking care of the earth AND yourself: