A Pause in the Journey Towards Self-Care
Posted on March 3, 2017
I feel the need to take a quick pause before jumping into the progression of burnout and trauma. The past few weeks, I have heard many compelling stories of fear and worry about the future. Between the blog and my travels throughout our country, I can feel the fear that many of us are carrying with us every day.
At this point in our examination of burnout and helping trauma, I have not yet mentioned that we can experience active trauma in our work as well. The first type of active trauma is what I’m now calling Big T-trauma. Big T-trauma is the language used to describe a traumatic event and the resulting stress response that overwhelms the nervous system, resulting in an existence dominated by the impact of the traumatic event.
Big T-trauma happens as a natural part of our work. My first therapy client ever was murdered. Past clients have committed terrible crimes. I’ve had to tell my staff that a student they cared deeply about passed away suddenly. We all carry scars like this around with us.
Rarely do we have enough time or space to heal, as these things become just another part of our jobs. Each of the events above will stick with me for the rest of my life. However, the news of these incidents was just part of a typical business day. I still had to see clients, go to meetings, and get my paperwork done. Most people outside our profession would need (and would probably be given) weeks to recover from events as emotionally devastating as the Big T-traumas I’ve experienced in my work. I had only enough time to breathe, cry, and hug someone before going back to work.
The other recent change in language is around something I call small-t trauma. I see small-t trauma as being something that affects someone existing in a highly stressful and dangerous environment for sustained periods of time. The possibility of traumatic events happening is ever-present. As our understanding of trauma increases, we have begun to realize that living with small-t trauma can be as devastating, both physically and psychologically, as Big-T trauma.
We have always worked with clients struggling with both Big-T and small-t trauma. However, with the election of Trump, the fear in our communities has grown exponentially. Whole populations are afraid of deportation. People of Muslim and Jewish faith fear for the safety of their children and themselves. People with illnesses are scared that they will lose access to medication. Those whose water is undrinkable hear that the EPA is being gutted. Those who won a victory for their sacred land now face down militarized police forces. Those who feel the government was finally starting to respect their rights to marriage equality and privacy now feel thrust back into the shadows.
As I speak to those at my trainings, this fear is not just a vicarious one that we hold for our clients. This political reality is impacting our communities, our families, and ourselves. How long can we hold fear and stress for others when our cups are overflowing with our trauma and stress?
We are just a little over a month into our new administration, and we see our fears becoming a reality. How dark will this reality become in the next four years? What will the impact be on the funding we rely on to provide life-saving services? How long can we offer a hug with one arm, while fighting for civil rights, health care, environmental protections, public schools, and a growing number of issues with the other arm?
I’m afraid that we are all experiencing, or at risk of suffering, small-t trauma, due to a mix of our work and the impact of this administration’s policies on clients, ourselves, and our communities. What does that do to people working in fields that already experience high rates of trauma and burnout?
I hope at this point in our journey that I no longer need to justify that you must take care of yourself first to do this work effectively. At this moment, we must double-down on self-care, both personally and within our organizations. We must provide opportunities for each other to voice our fears and support one another. We have an obligation to ourselves, our families, and our clients to eat well, exercise, get 8 hours of sleep, practice mindfulness, and everything else that allows us to maintain our health and well-being.
Over the next four years, we will be required to do more with less, we will see critical resources taken away from the people and communities that need them, we will need to speak for those too afraid or traumatized to speak for themselves. Together we can stand up to this coming wave of fear and trauma, but we all must bring our strongest selves to the fight!