Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Navigating Out: Overcoming Vicarious Trauma

The last post was a bit of doom and gloom. I apologize. I wanted to write this post the very next day, so the doom and gloom would not last too long. This post is, therefore, the opposite – tools for overcoming vicarious trauma. Not surprisingly, a few of them, ok a lot of them, have graced these posts before, and many of them are related to yoga in some way.

Once again, vicarious trauma stems from experiencing other peoples’ trauma day-in and day-out, without the ability to come down from the physiological response. That physiological response is the fight-or-flight response caused by increased cortisol and adrenaline with the added benefit of the hyperarousal associated with PTSD. Thus, the ways to overcome vicarious trauma include ways to release those hormones and ways to create boundaries in ourselves to decrease the effect the repeated trauma has on us.

The first step, of course, is the intention to move beyond the stronghold it has on our lives.

The number one way to reduce adrenaline and cortisol in the body is to get oxygen to the brain. As discussed before, one symptom of vicarious trauma and long-term stress is shallow, quick breathing. The opposite is, of course, deep and slow breaths. Therefore, one of the simplest and most effective ways to calm the physiological response is deep breathing - calm and cool breathing. Here is a link to all the posts here that have discussed breath (including this one).  The other way to get oxygen into the brain is through aerobic exercise. We all know how good exercise is for us, but some people still do not know how effective it is for overcoming stress responses and even vicarious trauma. It is great! Take a walk. Go for a run! Go swimming! Just make sure to get the heart rate up and oxygen into the brain.

And while we are on the topic of “what your doctor would tell you to do even if you were not overly stressed and suffering from vicarious trauma,” we can talk about diet. I try to keep discussions about diet off this blog. People who know me in “real life” are tired of me talking about food, but here it is very important. What is the last thing people who live off adrenaline and cortisol need in their diets? Stimulants! What is in every office breakroom? Coffee and sugar – stimulants!

I drink too much coffee. I try not to eat sugar. But when I feel my body getting tired and overrun, the need for both kicks in. I know they will only make the problem worse, but the body craves energy when we refuse it the rest and calm it deserves. But remember that when the body is in fight-or-flight mode, digestion is the first thing to shut down. Even reducing the coffee and sugar intake can help the body relax, especially if you reduce them in the afternoons and evenings. Instead, try for some fresh fruit, vegetables, or nuts. Nuts have fat the brain needs to function, and when we provide the body with complete nutrition, the cravings diminish. They may not go away, but nuts, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables will keep the body moving without the constant need for stimulants.

The next step is balance and boundaries. One of the indicators of someone who will suffer from vicarious trauma is a lack of boundaries. We take work home with us. We take peoples’ problems home with us. Setting up boundaries to give work its time will open up space for our own personal time. And that leads to the rest of the steps.

It is vitally important to have hobbies. I know someone who has been working with children and families for almost 30 years, and guess what she talks about most? Her craft projects. As a mentor, she teaches many of us young lawyers to have a hobby. She calls it therapy. And she is absolutely right! What do you love to do? Is it knitting? Gardening? Running? Going to the movies? Going out to eat? Reading? Playing video games? Going to a religious or spiritual place? Yoga? Whatever it is, follow Nike’s advice – just do it!

And enjoy your activities with a friend. Humans are social creatures. Again, we would not be here as a species if not for our social interactions. We need them. We crave them. And the surest sign that vicarious trauma has overtaken your life is when you start pushing away the people you love. So bring them back. They may be a bit upset about your recent irritability, but let them know you need their help. Let them know you want them around you for something fun. And make a promise – do not talk about the trauma. At least not at the beginning. Just have fun! Do what you love! And do it with someone you love!

There are other steps and stages and ideas. But these are the big ones. Oxygenate the brain, decrease the stimulants in the body, increase boundaries and social interactions, and find something you love to do and do it. But try not to do them all at once. Pick one. Right now. Before you close this page. Are you going to take a 15-minute walk each day with a friend? Are you going to drink one less cup of coffee? Are you going to start doing photography again? Are you going to sit and breathe for five minutes each day?

Do you intend to overcome vicarious trauma? What are you going to do to start the upward spiral?

"Navigating Out: Overcoming Vicarious Trauma" is part of the series, "Overcoming Crisis Mode," in which we discuss the second-hand trauma associated with being a lawyer and specific ways to overcome it.

© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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