Stress, Burnout, Secondary Trauma, Self-Care and Social Support

I wouldn’t call this past semester at grad school a resounding success — but they say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, whoever “they” are. What it did, though, was throw me back on the basics, and forced me to re-learn, or learn again at yet a deeper level, what your options are when you’re personally maxed out with what life is sending your way. Without getting into a lot of the details, let’s just say it all combined to make me feel I’d reached my personal limit, and sent me into avoiding any more of the same — a phenomenon I’ve since realized is a hallmark of secondary trauma.

If you want to dive further into the topic, there are some good resources out there — including this chart, that helps define the differences. But you will have to do a bit of digging, and overall there is not enough written on the topic, perhaps reflecting a lack of awareness for how common a dilemma getting overtaxed by other people’s burdens really is — especially if you’re empathic or conscientious by nature, and already weighed down to one degree or another by your own experience of unresolved trauma.


See if the following description doesn’t describe a lot of us who are drawn to the helping, or healing, professions:

Self-care is a bit of a buzzword these days, although it’s unclear how many people actually practice it. Or, a different way of saying that — there appears to be a lot of acknowledgment about the wisdom of practicing self-care, and very few compelling stories about how it’s done. Lately, coloring books for adults have been one item suggested for self-care; there’s even a gal I go to grad school with who literally colors through class. I’ve personally tried coloring, and it doesn’t really do it for me — or maybe it just doesn’t feel strong enough for what I actually need. (More power to you though if it’s a big help.)

So I went in search of stronger alternatives. I put out the question on social media, and got back a lot of positive stories where people had found what worked for them — be it journaling, spending time with family, exercising, listening to music, unplugging for Internet-free weekends, etc. (There’s even a Fitbit-like tracker called the Spire, to alert you to changes in your stress level so that you can take action.) The gist seemed to be, find what works for you and stick with it — making time for a good habit is the surest way to make sure it will actually happen.

Coloring is the new thing. But sometimes you need a stronger Rx for self-care.
Coloring is the new thing. But sometimes you need a stronger Rx for self-care.

But as I dug into the topic more, I also came up against the definitions of some of the more crucial elements here, which in some ways are important to know if you’re also traveling down this path. The distinctions help locate where the problem is — and where the solutions might be found as well. For example, it turns out that “burnout” — increasing dissatisfaction, manifested by distancing one’s self from the cause — is something that comes on gradually, whereas “secondary trauma,” also known as vicarious trauma, is something that can happen after just one instance of hearing a horrible story that you unfortunately absorb. Given that they come into your lives differently, the ways you can take to address them are different too. Brian Baird, Ph.D., the former president of Antioch University and a former Congressman, is also the author of the premier textbook on field placement. He writes:

So whether you locate the problem within yourself — or within the system that surrounds you — settles some of the options you may have. For my part, it’s always made more sense to figure out what I could do about my own participation first before assuming I should locate the problem externally. Deng Ming Dao, author of the fabulous 365 Tao, writes simply, “Though others have faults, concentrate on your own.” Words to live by! Much like these, posted in the kitchen for the quick reminder-hit.

For my part I’m trying to get back to remembering what I did when I felt like I had more “balance” in my life. I’m getting back to doing qigong regularly, a practice I started the last time I felt overwhelmed, and one that helped me recover from chronic fatigue syndrome years ago. When I lived in Seattle, I was lucky enough to take classes from Kim Ivy, at her Embrace the Moon studio. These days I content myself with a DVD from Lee Holden, but it’s all good: the important thing is the doing. I was talking recently about how much I love qigong with a wonderful veteran friend, Shad Meshad, who reminded me that his best friend swears by it too. If you want to learn more about qigong and T’ai chi — and Kim Ivy — they’re all in Cathryn Jakobson Ramin’s new book about the back pain industry, “Crooked.”

I’m also checking out counseling, to see what benefits that might bring — especially how to have it on tap as a resource the next time things get a bit overwhelming.

One especially good thing has come out of this last period of hardship, though. It’s pushed me to learn more about social support — that “go-to” suggestion for pretty much everything that’s even worse than self-care when it comes to having any practicals attached. Three times recently I’ve read about various ailments, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to military sexual trauma (MST), to secondary trauma — all of which described how social support or the lack thereof could influence it profoundly. And yet — it’s most paradoxical. Other than recommending that social support is a great idea for people, how do the very people who need it — who may already be at a disadvantage for building or sustaining relationships — actually access it?

To find an answer to that, I relied on my usual modus operandi — a sweeping read through the literature, plus asking around anyone who seemed likely to have any insight into the problem. In this case, the path led to a fantastic exchange with world-renowned psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, M.D., whose uniquely supportive website, Gift from Within, addresses many aspects of trauma in a holistic and all-encompassing way. It’s hard to even imagine a more humane, nuanced **and** practically useful response to the question, though, than the one Dr. Ochberg came up with. I’ll link to it here. It’s well worth the read, and frankly also well worth sharing with others who might need the assist as well.


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