When I was 8 years old I boasted to my best friend’s father that I had superpowers. “I’m telepathic!” I declared, “When other people hurt, I can feel it.” He laughed, gutted me with a shrink-ray of scorn, and said, “There’s no such thing silly, that’s just sympathy.” Over 30 years later and a social work and activist career later, I’m ready to say SCREW YOU to that humiliating experience. It IS a superpower. It’s our empathy compels us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the downtrodden, and gives us the passion to take on giants over and over. So take THAT cynicism. POW! And that hurt I was feeling? I discovered has a name: vicarious trauma.
Have you been struggling with some kryptonite-levels of exhaustion, sadness, anxiety, irritability, and foggy-headedness lately?
Maybe you’ve got superpowers too, my warrior friend. Maybe while your superpowers have been doing a hella lot of good out in the world, they’ve also been hurting you a little.
But now is not the time to stop crusading, right, true-believers?
What to do?
Vicarious trauma is like kryptonite in our pocket
Imagine that every time Superman flew or used his laser-vision, a little sliver of kryptonite appeared in the pocket of his supersuit. If he didn’t empty his pockets on a regular basis, he’d be pretty useless to the world in no time.
That’s what vicarious trauma is like. We can’t stop it from happening. It’s a by-product of our superpowers. We’d have to stop connecting and helping people to completely shield ourselves from it. Who wants that? Instead, we gotta learn to recognize when it’s time to empty our pockets.
Trauma is stress that we keep reliving
Stressful situations basically cause a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction in our brain. We either get geared up to fight off a lion, run from it, or tensely hide until it goes away. It’s Ok in the moment–sometimes even necessary, helping us to think clearer when we need it–and our body usually stabilizes again within 20 minutes to an hour or so.
Trauma is when we get stuck in that stress loop. We keep reacting to non-threatening situations with a stress response.
Vicarious trauma is when you empathize and some of the trauma rubs off on you
The symptoms of vicarious trauma are a lot like those of trauma itself (exhaustion, emotional shifts, disrupted thought patterns, and behavioral and relationship changes), just that the trauma isn’t yours.
Vicarious trauma (also called secondary trauma) comes from witnessing or hearing about someone else’s trauma. Your empathy allowed you to feel–really feel–their story and you were so deeply affected by it that you start to feel some of the pain as well.
There might be lots of little pieces of kryptonite clinking in your pocket, or maybe you talked to one person with a really powerful story and a huge chunk of kryptonite dropped in your pocket all at once.
How do I know if I’ve got some vicarious trauma?
What does it feel like to have a pocket full of kryptonite? Let’s make a checklist of possible symptoms:
(if you want to read more, I compiled these points from here and here and here)
- Physical tension in your body
- Headaches, back pain, and wrist pain
- Constant tiredness, even after resting
- Difficulty falling asleep or excessive sleeping
- Difficulties making decisions or focusing
- Increased levels of anger, irritability, resentment, or cynicism
- Hypervigilance and concern about your safety or of those you care about
- Intrusive thoughts and imagery related to the traumatic material you have seen or heard
- Finding that you can’t unplug from the stressful situation (you keep reading the news or keep talking about work)
- Jumping to conclusions
- Finding that you want to avoid previously positive or neutral social interactions
- Loss of enjoyment of sexual activity
- Loss of sense of control over your work and your life
- Difficulties trusting others
- Guilt for having more resources or opportunities than those you serve
- Feeling like no matter how much you give, it will never be enough
- Feeling negative or hopeless about the future, perhaps even a loss of sense of spirituality
- Difficulty talking about your feelings
This is by no means a complete list and I’m not a clinician, but I’d say if you have 8-10 of these (and don’t normally have any other chronic mental health condition), you’ve probably got a pocket full of vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is natural
That last point in the list is a big one: difficulty talking about it. I know trained therapists who described not wanting to talk about their trauma for fear of traumatizing someone else. And lots of times we feel ashamed–why can’t we just be strong enough to push through? Or we can’t quite figure out why we’re feeling like this all of a sudden; it’s so hard to put our finger on what’s shifted.
You can’t stop vicarious trauma from happening. It’s just part of the empathy process. And remember, that’s what makes us super-strong!
Similar to catching a cold, you can try to take care of yourself beforehand so you’re more resistant, but sometimes there’s just no avoiding it. It happens, and then all you can do is to take care of yourself so that you can get well as soon as possible. You wouldn’t blame yourself if you took care of a sick person and then caught their cold. You shouldn’t feel weak that when you bore witness to a really hard story that it affected you personally.
How to heal ourselves from vicarious trauma
Mindfulness goes a long way in healing vicarious trauma. We need to recognize the negative thought patterns and fight-flight-freeze responses that are taking over our mental landscape. And then we need to gently interrupt them and build in more positive patterns in their place.
In short, you gotta nurture yourselves, babes.
You gotta hold yourselves with the same gentle regard you would someone who is telling you a heart-wrenching story. You gotta care for yourself like you would your sick neighbor or your kid with the flu.
Think of it as a sprained ankle. You need mindfulness to help you recognize that the twinges you’re feeling mean that something got pulled out of place. Once you recognize that the pain is trying to tell you something, you need to take some weight off it. Don’t try to run on it the way you used to; you’ll only end up injuring yourself further. Do some things to help your body heal. Here the age-old techniques of self-care that all activists talk about come in: healthy food, moving your body, getting outdoors, journaling, be really careful to not consume too much of the numbing things (alcohol, TV, food, shopping, etc.), finding creative outlets, listening to music, defining spaces for yourself where you can be free from the stressors, spending quality time with loved ones, and so on. Once you’re feeling better ease yourself back into your old activities, being mindful of what hurt you in the first place so you don’t re-injure yourself.
Transforming vicarious trauma into fuel
It also helps to do things which can transform the pain of vicarious trauma.
Community building and connecting with others who are likewise healing is helpful. Connecting with others in the struggle makes it easier to talk about the pain. Social workers use techniques like regular supervision (where they discuss how cases are going) and debriefing (taking time after a traumatic event to process) to help them avoid vicarious trauma. While obviously we activists don’t have a team of clinician co-workers at our disposal, talking through how we’re feeling with people who understand instead of letting it run circles in our brains is still helpful.
A lot of vicarious trauma comes from the feeling that negative things in the world are out of our control. So taking action in small, measurable ways helps us to get back on our feet. Creating meaning from the pain can be transformative. If we can manage to get a sense of satisfaction from our compassion and empathy, then stressful situations can actually help to give our activism work meaning. Channeling what you’re feeling into concrete, attainable actions can help release some of the mental tension (although remember the sprained ankle analogy–don’t overdo it!). Seeking out success stories is another way to build that feeling of satisfaction.
Through mindfulness, self-care, and re-directing our energies towards attainable goals, we have the power to turn our kryptonite into fuel.
Repetitive vicarious trauma can lead to Compassion Fatigue
What happens if we don’t take the time to nurture ourselves through a bout of vicarious trauma? Compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a hip term these days; everybody is using it. What does it mean, really? Basically, it’s like listening to really loud music over and over. After a while, your ears get desensitized (even deafened) and you can’t hear tiny sounds as well. When your emotions get worn out, your mind starts to retract from a situation. You stop reacting to problems with the same level of emotion because your body can’t keep processing it all. Your emotions and your ability to care goes numb.
Compassion fatigue can be caused by repetitive exposure to vicarious trauma and that fear-flight-freeze cycle or by other types of burnout from overwork or other types of stress.
Build mindfulness into your everyday
Karen Burke Lane, a therapist specializing in holistic and sustainable self-care practices, told me that one of the most important things you can do is to build preventative mindfulness into your everyday, because sometimes the trauma itself makes it hard for us to notice what’s happening. In other words, make it a practice to empty your pockets regularly.
“[It’s] important to begin when not in the crisis situation of stress response from the vicarious trauma. For me, when I was stuck in the [memories of traumatic] stories I did not notice the symptoms.”
– Karen Burke Lane, Life Ideals
Karen went on to tell me that that relaxation can take lots of forms. In her program, she teaches people to build a Relaxation Response. Basically, it can be done seated, lying down, or during any repetitive activity, including walking, running, swimming, yoga, or knitting. She states there are two steps to the Relaxation Response:
- The repetition of a word, sound, prayer, thought, phrase or muscular activity (to break the train of everyday thought).
- The passive return to the repetition when other thoughts intrude.
The important thing is to start doing something like this regularly, so that it becomes a habit and when crisis strikes, we already have the pattern of emptying our pockets down pat.
Don’t be afraid to flex your superpowers
So many people are afraid of empathy. It’s scary to accept someone’s painful story as true and sit with it. It’s scary to reach out and touch raw emotions.
On the other hand, empathy IS the super-power that is going to help us heal this world. It’s going to help us make the connections so that we can see with clear eyes where the problems really are. It’s going to give us the righteous fury to topple the giants together. And it’s going to light our path as we march forwards. We need it. Without it, our movement will be adrift.
So we need to be mindful of the kryptonite generated. We need to set up patterns in our life that make us more resistant to it, and we need to give ourselves space to heal when it weighs us down too much.
Once you’re used to recognizing vicarious trauma in yourself and others, you’ll start noticing the activists who function from the hyper-alert traumatized state and those that have managed to achieve a balance.
One is sustainable activism. The other is not.
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