Burnout. Compassion fatigue. Secondary traumatic stress. These are terms used to describe the emotional (and physical) drain experienced by many trauma workers.
The symptoms can mimic those of post-traumatic stress, or PTSD: feeling numb, anxious, depressed, cynical, discouraged, or fatigued. Caregivers may also experience sleep issues from working too many hours or seeing too many patients.
“Those who work with survivors may begin to show signs of stress disorders ranging from difficulty sleeping to PTSD symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and heightened reactivity,” according to research from the Veteran's Administration. “While this area of research is relatively new, researchers have coined a number of terms to describe the effects of working with trauma.”
These conditions can be especially present for newer therapists, highly empathic or sensitive people, or for those with their own history of trauma.
“If you are in a helping profession, you most likely have a trauma history of your own,” said Maj. Susan Lynch, executive director of There and Back Again, at Omega's 2014 Veterans, Trauma & Treatment Conference. “You must ask yourself, how comfortable am I with my own trauma?”
At the conference, experts discussed the idea of “clearing our own mirror so the patients can see themselves.” When a trauma worker is free of their own suffering, they have more space to listen and help others.
A Holistic Approach to Self-Care
Lynch’s There and Back Again organization supports the well-being of service members by providing reintegration support services to combat veterans of all conflicts. The program takes a multifaceted approach to wellness, including yoga, Reiki, acupuncture, meditation, and other alternative therapies to help empower veterans to manage their own challenges of reintegration.
A combat experience is an extreme experience, which can disconnect someone from one or all aspects of the Self. But many trauma workers have had their own version of trauma or loss and also need to utilize similar tools in their lives to reconnect and reintegrate.
“Many providers and clinicians have never sat with their own suffering,” Lynch said.
According to Lynch, in order to be fully present with those we are trying to help, we must address our own needs.
Training Trauma Workers
The importance of training trauma workers in self-care is gaining more recognition in social work training.
At the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, self-care is an assignment in the first course.
Marian C. Bussey, an associate professor and the director of program assessment and evaluation, said that students create a self-care plan and that literature on secondary trauma ties into the lesson.
“In the second part of the course, we ask them to take a look at that plan and whether they were able to stick to it,” Bussey explains. “If their plan was to relax by doing yoga three times a week, we ask if they were able to actually do it. As busy students, many are not able to stick to their self-care plans, and we point out that it will be the same case once they are employed. That often hits home for the students, and we start talking about ways to find, at the very least, a mini break.”
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies