Adapt - to make suitable for new use or purpose; become adjusted to new conditions (merriam-webster.com)
COVID-19 has brought disruption to everyone’s lives in so many different ways. I never imagined my life and daily routines would be so drastically altered in a week. My kids are at home all day now instead of going to school and will probably finish up the school year interacting with their teacher and classmates through Zoom and being semi-homeschooled by myself and my husband. We can’t go to restaurants or workout at the gym, and a trip to the grocery store feels like a wild goose chase trying to figure out what store stocks when and who will have everything on my list.
My therapy practice has drastically changed as well. Hardly anyone, clinician or client, is in the office, which is normally bustling. We had to shut down our yoga studio, and I haven’t been able to practice in the space that has been my yoga home for years. In just a few days, I had to figure out how to meet with clients remotely in case either one of us is quarantined. Teletherapy never was a platform I wanted to use because of the nature of the trauma work I do, but at this point, it isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity.
In short, everything is turned upside down and what was the norm a week ago, feels like ancient history and who knows if it will go back to that way of life ever again. I spent the last few days grieving and feeling like I was living in crisis mode, trying to make sense of everything and finding a stable footing. I know my family is fortunate; my husband and I both still have our jobs and the ability to work from home, we have our health and endless resources. Our theme for life today is adaptation, and we must find new ways to adjust to these new conditions.
Take time to grieve and have a breakdown. There is so much turmoil and uncertainty now; acknowledging this can help you cope with these feelings. And it’s okay to be sad about the more superficial changes like not being able to stop by Target randomly or having a mid-afternoon cappuccino at Starbucks. Take the time you need to experience and process these feelings.
Be mindful and stay in the present moment. Even with all the stress and chaos happening around us, there are so many positive moments that we could miss. It could be your kids laughing and talking as they are playing Minecraft together or hearing the spring peepers at night. By being mindful and paying attention, we can strengthen the importance of these positive moments.
Limit social media and the news. It’s so easy to get caught up in minute by minute updates in the news and all of the commentary on social media. It’s beneficial to stay informed but do so in small doses to avoid vicarious trauma.
Find control in the things you can. There are so many restrictions being placed on us right now in regard to where we can go and who we can be around. Businesses and restaurants are being told to close, people are losing their jobs, and normal resources are scarce. This can trigger a feeling of not having control, and it is important to find control in the things you can. It may be as simple as setting a time to get up in the morning or when to eat meals. Take the initiative to turn off the news and limit social media and go outside for a walk.
You are not alone. No one on this planet is immune to what is happening right now. In different ways, everyone is affected by this pandemic. My hope is that we, as a global community, find solidarity in this. It is a time to come together and find strength in this shared experience. If you feel that you are the only one overwhelmed, anxious, angry, remember, you are not alone. We are all learning how to adapt, and we are all in this together.
Interactions With Vicarious Trauma: The Healer's Search for Absolution by Jennifer Harwood, LCSW, LCAC
After 30 years of working in the field of behavioral health in various capacities, I’m owning the fact that I have dealt with vicarious trauma and PTSD related issues for many years. While I can joke and discount many of the encounters I’ve had through the years as “part of the job,” I wasn’t counting on was the physical and emotional toll the job really had on me. Had I heard some of these stories from others, I wouldn’t hesitate to be concerned at the symptoms and events; but for me, I could handle anything. After a while, I had to discard my cape and realize I was not a superhero with powers to deflect the toxins that had been thrown my way. As much as I dove in and stayed in the trenches to help people overcome their disturbances, I had to pull myself out of those same trenches to find my own healing.
So, what is vicarious trauma, clinician burnout, compassion fatigue? Vicarious trauma occurs when we have been exposed to, experienced, witnessed, or listened to other’s experiences of traumatic material, usually over a period of time. When someone shares their traumatic stories with us in such a way that we can visually experience it with them, we are at risk of activating our own trauma responses. This leads to what some refer to as “burnout”, but what I call vicarious trauma. It is being personally traumatized through the eyes of someone else. Vicarious trauma has a host of signs and symptoms, such as disconnection and/or depersonalization, lack of energy, social withdrawal or isolation, cynicism, despair and hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbances, disrupted frame of reference, such as an inability to trust our own decisions, minimization, hyper-vigilance, self-loathing, emotional numbness, feeling overwhelmed, intense rage or bouts of crying, anxiety, nightmares, resentments towards others, including clients, feeling unsafe, poor self-care, concentration problems, and feelings of being on an emotional rollercoaster. This list could go on and sounds in large part like the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are indeed trauma reactions, even if we did not directly witness the trauma, and have been a large piece of my life for quite a while now. I’ve worked to gain an understanding of my own vicarious trauma reactions and feel lead to share this with others. We are not “burned out clinicians” who need to retire; on the contrary, we are wounded healers who understand some things so intensely. Our clients are actually in the best hands they can be in, when we are well ourselves.
When the whole of your work is to help others bear the weight of their souls, the pressure of their pasts, and the anguish of their current situations, it bears on us in a profound way. We dissociate from our emotions just enough to show compassions and empathy but be still able to cut off from those feelings in order to help clients heal. We may find ourselves subject to this pendulating force regardless of the situation, including in our own personal lives.
I have come to believe in the practice of self-care. For me, it’s more than just compassion and healing – it’s survival. When I am in a spiral of negative cause and effects related to the vicarious trauma I’ve witnessed, the replay of my own demons, or a combination of the dark side of the world in which we live, I have to have the escape, the outlet, the life that still exists. Expressions of art, music, prose, or meaningful conversations help me to share that emotional wound. When I write, my soul unburdens itself without fear of judgement, accusations, or denial. What I have inside me needs to be expressed from a place of non-judgement or I will not allow it to purge, and, not purging those feelings is disastrous. It can mean the shutting down of emotional regulation, the disregard for others and myself in a variety of areas, and a general sense of mistrust with the world around me. I need to have light in the times of darkness, for if the cold dampness is allowed to fester, the beauty within is left to ruin. Expression is my escape from the center of my mind which I so desperately need at times. Without the escape, I become tainted and ineffective as a clinician and as a person. And so, my hope in writing about this is that this act of self-expression and owning my experiences with vicarious trauma will help others find an outlet to express their own feelings and experiences. What is left alone too long no longer serves any purpose, except to destroy.
And so, this writing comes from a state of necessity. I am now noticing that the depth of the pain of what I hear all day has had a tremendous effect on me over the course of 30 years, and I’m sure other clinicians feel this way as well. By sharing this experience, I hope we are all able to find the core piece of ourselves that was what started our paths on this journey again. The times of wanting to cancel clients and take the day off, sleep disturbances, experiences with hyper-vigilance and intrusive thoughts were creeping in again like a familiar, but terrifying, old friend. The ghosts of those past mentors, clients, clinicians, and eras had been overtaking each other until I no longer heard the words which needed now be spoken, to me or others. When I can no longer distinguish between clinical appropriateness, my own bias, therapeutic boundaries, and personal fears, it’s time to pull back the reigns and allow some healing to occur. So, as I offer these perspectives to my colleagues, I should also note how very personal this is for me. My life’s work in the field of behavioral health has taken different avenues, but I have never lost my desire to be a guide to those who may need a light. By shedding light on this issue, I hope to find my own light source again in a way that it no longer burns down quite so far. This is how I make amends with my own past mistakes and come to a place of true trauma-informed care, that starts, inevitably, with me.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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