MODULE FOUR | Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

PART FIVE | Addressing Vicarious Trauma: Three Important Themes

There are three especially important themes to keep in mind when considering a long-term action plan to help you address vicarious trauma – awareness, balance, and connection. Let’s look at each in turn.

Three important themes in an effective action plan for vicarious trauma are awareness, balance, and connection.

Awareness

Awareness can help you address vicarious trauma in at least two ways. First, it can help you identify and understand your own reactions. Second, the practice of awareness itself can also be good for helping you address vicarious trauma.

Understanding your responses
Awareness is an essential first step in figuring out what you are experiencing (your responses to what’s happening in your work, as well as the rest of life) and what you can do to care for yourself in this time.

You should check in with yourself regularly. How are you feeling (physically and emotionally)? Can you figure out at least some of the reasons why you might be feeling this way? The earlier you notice that something is getting to you – making you tense, uncomfortable, distressed, annoyed, or tired, for example – the easier it is to prevent bigger problems. A self-awareness check can help you figure out:

  • Potential risk factors that you’re being exposed to; and
  • How you are responding

Sometimes your self-awareness check will tell you, “This is a really tough day, but tomorrow will be better,” and it is. Sometimes your awareness check will tell you, “Something’s really wrong, and I don’t know what it is.” That calls for taking time as soon as possible to reflect (e.g., through writing, talking to someone you trust, drawing, painting, or however you connect with yourself and your feelings). Sometimes a self-awareness check leads to the realization that something really is wrong and there isn’t much you can do about it for now.

Understanding your responses and what might be contributing to them can lead you to a sense of what you need, and how to change what’s happening or manage your own responses so that things don’t get worse.
“As with so many other conditions, prevention is the most effective approach. There is no way to avoid stress and overload [completely] in this work, but the trick is to know your own warning signs and recognize early the need to make adjustments to your work and personal care strategies.”
— Kitsy Schoen, working in HIV/AIDS caregiving, (Schoen, 1998, p.527)

Awareness as a discipline

Being aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it, deliberately keeping your mind and your body in the same place, is a common spiritual discipline.

If you can stay more aware in this sense (feeling present and connected) while you are working, vicarious trauma may be less likely to develop. This type of awareness can help you take in the pain around you and observe as it moves through your mind and body, touching you without paralyzing you. This is a lot easier said than done, but it is possible that the simple act of being more aware of your actions and reactions can help your experiences of your own and others’ pain feel more manageable.

Being aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it, deliberately keeping your mind and your body in the same place, may help prevent and manage vicarious trauma.

Think about…

  • Spend some time reflecting on how you’re feeling (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). How did you feel when you woke up this morning? How do you feel now? Are you aware of anything out of the ordinary? If so, what might that be related to?
  • What is your opinion of the statement that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”? Do you see this as relevant to your experiences of vicarious trauma? If so, how?

Balance

When you are thinking about ways to address and transform vicarious trauma, it’s important to consider the issue of balance. Here are a couple of areas in which balance is particularly important:

  • Balancing your personal needs with the demands of your work; and
  • Balancing really demanding work with less challenging work.

Work-life balance
You should take a break (daily, weekly, monthly, and annually) to balance the rest of your life with your work. Among other things, this means:

  • Making sure that each work day includes some breaks for meals and physical activity or rest (depending on what you’re taking a break from); and
  • Taking time away from work for rest and relaxation, for friends and family, for spiritual renewal, and for professional development. In particular, it’s important to spend time with people whom you don’t have to take care of or rescue. There are times when this is not possible. Some days, you are the desperate person, yet you have to take care of others. That can happen from time to time, but it becomes dangerous when it’s chronic – when you are not able to find a balance between caring for others and being cared for.

Balance on the job
Balance is not just about balancing work with other important aspects of your life; it is also about finding a balance within work that will allow you to work in a sustainable way. Humanitarian work is rarely a sprint. Much more often it is a marathon, and you should be thinking about working now in ways that help make sure you can still be doing this same work two years from now if you want to.

This means, for example, stopping work after a reasonable number of hours, even in disaster response situations. This can be very challenging when lots of people need help. But remember that research suggests that exhausted workers can actually do more harm than good, because of the mistakes they often make. It also means thinking ahead whenever you can to balance your more and less challenging tasks. Of course, such planning is not always possible. But to the extent that you can plan your work days and weeks according to the rhythm that works best for you, you will work more effectively and with less emotional exhaustion and, ultimately, vicarious trauma.

Part of an effective approach to addressing VT is to find the right balance for you as often as you can. This means balancing your work with the rest of your life, and also balancing demanding work with less challenging work.

Think about…

  • Complete this sentence five times, in five different ways: “I sometimes find it difficult to balance ______ with ______.” (Hint, think about demands, responsibilities, and desires across different people, roles, and situations in your life).
  • What are two issues or themes around which you most frequently feel as if you struggle to find balance?

Connection

The final theme we will look at is connection – connection with other people, and with our spiritual selves.

Connecting with other people
Social support – connecting meaningfully with people you like and care about – is good for just about everything related to physical and mental health. The best social support involves more than just casual connections with the people around you; it requires connecting with personal and professional communities.

A community is something very special. A true community is a group of people who know each other, share experiences and values, and reach out to one another in good times or in times of need or distress. Families, clubs, professional bodies, and faith groups, for example, can all be communities. Different communities often provide different types of support, so belonging to more than one community can be valuable.

“Strong relationships afford the best protection in traumatic and stressful environments… Above all factors, we seem to be dependent on the strength and nature of our relationships with one another, with the earth on which we live, and with the God who created us.”
— (Fawcett, 2003, p. 7)
Maintaining nurturing relationships and meaningful contact with family, friends, and colleagues is one of the best things we can recommend to help address vicarious trauma.

Spiritual connection

Being connected goes beyond our relationships with other people. It is also important to feel connected to whatever it is that nurtures or anchors you – be that God, faith, nature, humanity, or another source or meaning and purpose. This is especially important for humanitarian workers because this core sense of spiritual connection can help prevent and fight the loss of meaning and hope that are at the heart of vicarious trauma. The key to transforming vicarious trauma is to find one’s own path to spiritual renewal – to connecting with a sense of awe, joy, wonder, purpose, and hope – and revisit it regularly and frequently.

An essential part of a spiritual connection is to find one’s own path to connecting with a sense of awe, joy, wonder, purpose, meaning, and hope, and revisit it regularly and frequently.

Think about…

  • What are two communities that are important to you? How do they “feed you” and help you feel supported and connected?
  • What makes you feel connected spiritually? (Hint, remember that your spirituality is connected to your deepest sense of meaning and purpose. It can be related to a faith in God, nature, humanity, or something else)
© Headington Institute 2008