Anyone Having Trouble Sleeping?
Posted on October 13, 2017
I try to live my life with as much balance as possible. While I spend most of my days thinking and talking about trauma, I intentionally balance this exposure to pain and suffering with self-care strategies and tackling other subjects of learning such as history, spirituality, and literature. In normal times, my strategies work well. Right now, they don’t seem adequate for the trauma occurring in our country.
Conducting training on self-care, I think a lot about my health, resiliency, and well-being. I struggle with hypocrisy and try to avoid it at all cost. My rule is that I must practice the self-care strategies that I teach others or I admit my short-comings to my audience (something that I hate doing!). Over the years, this approach has transformed the way I exercise, eat, work and led me to a practice of mindfulness.
This focus on self-care also forces me to think about what I call “triggers” or signals that our behavior, body, or mind give that you are hitting the early stages of burnout. I share several of my triggers when I train including a knot in my upper left shoulder, stress headaches, and weird dreams about the tedious aspects of my work. Another clear sign that my life is out of balance is my quality and amount of sleep.
Knowing that sleep is critical to well-being does not help you fall asleep! In the past, I know that work stress or instability in my life affects my sleep quality. Right now, I’m doing a pretty good job with my self-care. My schedule is manageable, my health is good, a back up to running 10+ miles on the weekend, and (as always) my home life is happy and pretty stress-free (though there is Tucker!). Despite of all of the good, my sleep is terrible. While work stress and life struggles make my mind ruminate and struggle to turn off, there is something else that leads to a different kind of restless night.
In recent years, I have noticed something odd in myself. I confront the reality of homelessness, trauma, racism, poverty, and other intense issues every day in my work. While these issues and our inability to address them frustrate me to all ends, I can still sleep normally. I notice more and more that during a sleepless night, I get up and turn on the TV and realize something traumatic happened like another mass shooting or natural disaster that impact huge numbers of people. While I would not say I’m experiencing some psychic form of vicarious trauma with what is going on in Las Vegas, Houston, Puerto Rico and other places, these events are taking a toll in unconscious ways that are likely affecting me well beyond my quality of sleep.
Those in our fields are intuitive and feel things in ways other people might not. In good part, our intuitive nature is a result of seeing suffering on a regular basis. We know when Houston floods it will disproportionally affect the poor and homeless. Seeing the effects of racism and discrimination on those populations we work with provides us a lens to see reactions to the suffering in Puerto Rico in a historical light that others might not notice. When you lose clients to gun violence through homicides and suicides, you hear gunfire on the news a little differently.
I would also venture, with great confidence, that those with natural intuition are drawn to the fields of social work, psychological, health care, education, and other helping professions. Something about our life experience, dedication to social justice, and love for those in our community who are suffering brought us to this work. Our intuitive nature helps inform our work and keeps our passion alive, it also puts us at much higher risk for things like vicarious and secondary trauma.
Our situation in these times is perilous. The work we do each day often exposes us to tremendous suffering. Intuitively, we feel the pain of those suffering the human-made or natural disasters dominating the news cycle. The cherry on top is our frustration with the political debates and leadership following these events. Do we have any hope that our political leaders who cannot even respond appropriately to white supremacist and nonviolent protest will effectively engage the nation in a logical conversation on gun control?
It is a small miracle that most of us who face the suffering we see in our daily work can occasionally get a good night’s sleep. In these times of great distress, it is essential that we pay particular attention to our triggers and self-care. Some of us might reach for an extra drink after work; others might turn to comfort food. Still, others will struggle to turn the news off even though we know it is no longer healthy to watch another hour of coverage. Self-care strategies such as working out, eating healthy, mindfulness, connecting with those that bring love and joy into our lives, and doing nice things for ourselves will seem more difficult at these times.
I will be honest; I’m not sure how or when I’ll get a good night sleep again. While I know I will struggle in that area of self-care, I will go for a run today, I will play pickleball with my buddy Jeff tomorrow morning, I’ll have a blast with friends at the Drive-By Trucker concert on Saturday, I will schedule that massage, I will practice mindlessness tomorrow, and I’ll drink that healthy shake for breakfast no matter how much I crave biscuits and gravy!
It is in these times that people need us at our best. It is in these moments that being our best is most difficult. Our challenges are never small ones! Each trauma challenges us to meet it with hope and resiliency. It is hard to watch these disasters because I’ve trained and have friends in San Juan, Vegas, and Houston. I know that there are incredibly strong people in these communities ready to help their communities pick up the pieces, rebuild, heal, and maybe in the process address some of the more significant societal problems that require us to do this work in the first place.