When Helping Hurts
The immediate and lasting effects of hurricane Harvey to the Texas coast line have taken over media outlets over the past week. It’s been heartbreaking to watch and hear stories of loss every single day, and to confront the reality that those effected, whether directly or indirectly, will be dealing with the effects for months. But there is beauty in the ashes and I think we can all agree that the responses of volunteers and emergency professionals has been extremely moving.
These helpers see that their fellow “neighbors” are in dire need and they jump to action, no matter the cost, no matter the risk or sacrifice. They are driven by true compassion and adrenaline (in the moment), which in turn helps them confront, time and time again, the utter trauma and destruction of the very lives they are aiding.
These types of events change us. They change our perspective on life (mostly for the better), however, the way that happens can sometimes be more than our brains can handle. The physical, emotional, and mental reality hits like a ton of bricks and helpers can experience what’s called “vicarious trauma”.
What is Vicarious Trauma?
Vicarious trauma occurs when a person is indirectly exposed to traumatic events. A lot of times, this comes from hearing first hand accounts of victims (repeated exposure). It can also be known as secondary trauma or compassion fatigue.
- Lasting feelings of grief, anxiety, sadness, and/or anger
- General feeling of lack of safety
- Difficulty sleeping
- Isolation or increased feeling of disconnect
- Ruminating on trauma stories
- Frequent dreams of traumatic event
- Difficulty concentrating
- Altered eating habits (not eating enough or binge eating)
- Engaging in risky behavior (increased drinking/drug use/excessive spending etc).
Coping with Vicarious Trauma
If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, it’s time to take a break and distract:
- Get away: It is important to take time away for yourself to allow yourself physical, mental and emotional recovery. Take a vacation (or a stay-cation), spend time with friends, read a good book or 2 (or 5).
- Rest: Plan a few days (or at least 1) to have NO plans! Sleep in, enjoy multiple cups of coffee, lay by the pool, get a massage (just a few ideas).
- Play: Do things that make you laugh or lighten the mood! Watch a funny movie, spend time with your funny friend (we all have 1 of those), be active (otherwise known as excercise), take a painting class.
Sometimes, it takes more than the above mentioned things to move on. Counseling can provide a safe space to share your experiences and process your thoughts and emotions. You should not feel ashamed that you are struggling with the weightiness of the experiences of others. It’s what makes you human.
As volunteers, caring professionals, first responders, etc., we never expect the people we’re helping to go through their experience alone. Otherwise, we wouldn’t show up. Therefore, it’s only fair that we don’t expect it of ourselves.
All of us here at Amy Wine Counseling Center are so thankful for each and everyone of you who have reached out in any way to help those in need during this time. Your sacrifice and kindness speak volumes. Consequently, if you feel as if you need help handling vicarious trauma, call us today at 832-421-8714 or email us to make an appointment.
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