Blue Knot: Vicarious Trauma

TW: suicide, mental health, violence, sexual assault

I know I promised I’d be back to endometriosis on Friday.  Apparently  I lied.  On Friday night I was feeling so well that I seized the moment and went to see my parents, and on Saturday my week of unhealthy living (i.e. drinking a litre of green tea on Friday to stay awake after an early morning and late night on Thursday) caught up with me and I was in too much pain to sit here and write.  And now today I’m not really talking about endo either.

Instead I want to write about vicarious trauma, which is fitting given what I wrote about RUOK DayRUOK Day encourages talking to people and listening to their issues.  Blue Knot instead provides services for those suffering trauma, or those experiencing vicarious trauma, which is where you are effected by experiencing something second-hand.  We had a training session by the Blue Knot foundation this week.

I’m a lawyer.  I hear traumatic stories all the time, including first-hand accounts from my clients about the serious violence they have faced.  Sometimes that includes viewing wounds, graphic images people have posted online, and reading some really sickening police and medical reports.  There are many professions that are equally high risk for various trauma, including medical, mental health, emergency services and support services.  Basically, anyone who hears or sees other people’s accounts of a traumatic event.  That can include when you follow the steps provided by RUOK to support someone having thoughts of suicide.

There is always the risk, when you agree to talk about issues someone is facing, that you will be taking on a seriously difficult topic that could leave its own scars on you.  It’s not something you should necessarily do unless you are in a sufficiently healthy headspace.  Even then, the effect it could have may surprise you.

Vicarious trauma is a sneaky beggar, too.  It can build slowly and you don’t even notice how badly you are being effected until you reach crisis point.  Alternatively, it can strike out of nowhere for apparently no reason at full power.  A few months ago, I was representing a woman to get an interim domestic violence order.  She told me her story, I drafted the application, and then about an hour later we were in front of the court and I was taking her through her evidence and giving submissions.  While I was making my submissions, this massive lump formed in my throat, tears flooded my eyes and I choked up.  I managed to stumble through my closing without (I think) being obvious upset, but my goodness, it was an intense feeling.  The strangest part?  I can’t even remember the woman’s story now.  I don’t think it was really different from anything I’d heard before and I cannot remember why that one in particular got to me.  It just did.  I was left feeling anxious and unsettled for the rest of the day.  I got the order, that much I do remember.

Anyway, that was vicarious trauma.  Something about her story triggered a very physical response in me.  And trauma is physical – it’s a reaction to stress that settles into the very tissue of your body.  But what can you do about it?

First, before you even notice symptoms, act protectively.  Dr John Arden recommends a technique called SEEDS – Social Connectivity, Exercise, Education, Diet and Sleep.  I’ll let you read more about what that means on that link, as he explains it in his own words, but the TL;DR is: be social, exercise regularly, keep your brain engaged, eat well and sleep well.

As usual, it is an unfortunately able-bodied technique that assumes people at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma are automatically capable of these things.  When I’m healthy and not in a flare-up I’m perfectly capable of taking each of the above precautions (except, apparently, when there are cakes to be made), but they are that much harder when you’re sick.  So for us, it becomes a case of “do what you can.” Unfortunately these factors don’t become any less important for us, so we have to find ways of doing them that work for us.  Maybe our social connection needs to happen by phone or in our house.  Our exercise might just be yoga or a couple of minutes on an exercise bike.  Education might be pausing our Netflix binge of unhappiness to do a Sudoku or logic puzzle, or switching to a documentary.  For diet, ensure that the meals buried in the freezer aren’t just chips and pies, or that your Deliveroo includes some vegetables.  If pain or medication is interfering with your sleep, talk to your doctor about counteracting that with sedatives, melatonin, or anti-insomnia techniques.  Practice good sleep hygiene as much as you can.  The more you do these things, the better able you will be to fight trauma when it comes, vicariously or otherwise (and the better you’ll be at dealing with flare-ups). However, if you aren’t achieving them, don’t beat yourself up – that’s really counter-productive.  Practise some self-compassion.

Second, learn to identify it in yourself and others.  It may be represented by changes in behaviour that are totally innocuous or even appear beneficial, such as a renewed dedication to work that even borders on or later becomes workaholism.  It may be a previously loud person becoming withdrawn, or a quiet one becoming overly loud.  It might be an increase in substance use or an inability to sleep resulting in exhaustion.  If it is you that is at risk, check in with yourself.  Take the time to see how you are feeling and compare that to other days.  It’s a weird thing to do, but analyse yourself and don’t give yourself a pass.  By that I mean, if you notice that you are tense and agitated, don’t just say, “oh, that’s just because work is busy.” Instead say, “I think that’s just because work is busy at the moment, but I’ll keep checking in on it.” If work calms down and you don’t, it might be time to speak to someone.

Finally, if you realise it that there is a problem, talk to someone.  If you have a supportive boss, discuss with them if perhaps you can take a short break from the thing that traumatised you – for example, I might ask if I can do a week of general civil law instead of domestic violence and help people with debt, tenancy and employment instead.  However, you may not have the option for that, so you may need to speak to someone outside of work.  If your work has an Employee Assistance Programme, utilise it.  If you need a starting point, try calling the Blue Knot helpline on 1300 657 380.  Talk to your GP about a mental health plan.  If you are a student, access the resources at your school or university.

I just want to finish by saying that the training provided was excellent.  The trainer was a psychologist and he was clear incredibly passionate about what he does.  If it is something that could benefit your workplace, I really recommend it.

Are you in an at risk job?  Have you ever noticed vicarious trauma symptoms in yourself?  How did you deal with it?  Let me know in the comments.

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