Jax Wechsler

Stewarding Trauma : Self care tips and tools for working within trauma spaces

Trauma is widespread and intergenerational. 70% of Americans will have experienced trauma at some stage in their lives and 65% of Australians. These statistics are far greater for refugees, vulnerable communities, minority groups and indigenous peoples. 

Collective Trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society. Poor psychological reactions to current societal is common place. Loss, illness, losing loved ones, financial stress, bush fires and other climatic events….the list goes on. Not to mention the traumatic events experienced by our ancestors and passed down internationally. Trauma is so widespread and so many of us work with people who have experienced trauma and within contexts associated with trauma. 

Those who work with people who have experienced trauma and within trauma associated contexts are at risk of vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma or trauma exposure response takes place in the self as a result of empathic engagement with traumatised individuals and reports of their traumatic experiences. Secondary trauma or vicarious trauma is commonly described as empathic strain, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and burnout.

If we want to help people and the planet it is critical that we are aware of vicarious trauma and have mechanisms in place to support our ability to help.

As a Social Designer who regularly works with people who have experienced trauma, I have become very interested in trauma informed practice. I have learnt a lot about vicarious trauma from this fabulous book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and have created written this article to share some of the things I have learnt and some practices to support practitioners to be doing this work. First, lets talk about how vicarious trauma can show up in us.

Trauma Stewardship book cover

Vicarious Trauma & Self Care

Examples of ways Vicarious Trauma can show up include, Difficulty empathising/minimising/numbing, chronic exhaustion and saturated nervous system, hypervigilence and always serious, negativity bias and not assuming well, and feeling hopeless, like one can never do enough. The book shares a wheel illustrating some things to look out for in people experiencing overwhelm and vicarious trauma. These are things to look out for in yourself and also in your colleagues.

Some colleagues I know have stuck this up in their office kitchen. You can buy posters of this here. It is a model that can be helpful for you to notice when you or your colleagues may be experiencing vicarious trauma. We can not effectively wok or help others when we are not well ourselves! Consider sharing the link to this PDF with your colleagues.

Another valuable infographic from the Trauma Stewardship Institute is the Map for Managing One’s Day.  It has a lot of good information and prompts relating to the importance of self care and tending our nervous systems. Another, useful resource worth reviewing and sharing with your colleagues.

A Supporting Practice : The 5 Directions framework.

The 5 Directions framework is a daily practice that can help us recenter ourselves, empowering us to navigate our contexts that may feel out of control. It can help us tend to the hardship, pain or trauma experienced by humans, other living beings, and the planet itself.

The framework provides you with a way to reflect which can act as a powerful antidote to the feelings of helplessness that can result from exposure to trauma. 

I will hear explain the 5 directions and suggest some things to think about. It is suggested that you take a few minutes to contemplate the different directions each day. It provides a symbolic map for deeper content and riving it daily, brings the associated deeper content into your consciousness. 

You can try working through this framework with your team as well. 

>> NORTH : WATER : Creating space for inquiry.

The North is ruled by water – the element that represents the emotions.

It is important to create space for regular inquiry.

Should we be experiencing some kind of emotional discomfort we need to ask ourselves:

“What in this pain is connecting to what in me, and where is that original pain coming from?”
Often there is a relationship between our own histories and the work we are doing which can cause pronounced discomfort. Tune into that.

Ask yourself :

  1. Why am I doing what I am doing? 
    After you hear your answer, remind yourself, gently, that you are making a choice to do this work. Take a deep breath; breathe in both the responsibility and the freedom in this acknowledgement. 
  2. Is this working for me?
  • Brainstorm five ways in which you think what you are doing is working for you.
  • Create a list of five ways in which you would ideally see your work benefiting you and those you serve. Compare the two lists.

3. Have I done something edifying for myself today? What may I do for myself today?

>> EAST : FIRE : Choosing our focus

No matter how troubling and uncontrollable our external world may be, we choose what we focus on. Through reframing our experiences we can frame our experience and our lives.

It can become habitual focusing on painful, negative events and it can take discipline to raise our gaze and see the world through different eyes. Good news! This is a muscle you can develop.

Some practices to help you choose your focus:

  1. Consider your point of view: Think of a challenging work situation. Write down three things that make it challenging. Write down three things that you appreciate about it. Look at your lists and ask yourself, “Where am I more likely to focus and why?”
  2. Where is my attention? For one day, commit to paying attention to the running commentary in your mind. Is your mind in the habit of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full?
  3. What Is My Plan B?  “If I weren’t doing this work, what would I love to do?” Having a Plan B reminds us that what we do is an act of free will…the mere act of considering alternatives may create an opening to broaden our conception of our life’s work.
    • What is my Plan B?
    • Generate a list of five things you can do over the next five weeks to help you get closer to realizing your Plan B.
    • Tell three loved ones about your Plan B and ask them to encourage you in that direction at least once a month.

>> SOUTH : EARTH : Building compassion and community

Our micro culture should support us in two ways: by showing us with encouragement and by holding us accountable. Jack Kornfield says “ If you compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

Some practices to help you to build compassion and community:

  1. Remembering your ancestors : Ask yourself what your ancestors and those who raised you have done, throughout time, to heal themselves and others. When they experienced trauma, how did they go on?
  2. Gratitude practice : At the beginning and end of your workday, take a distinct moment to think of one thing you are grateful for. Every single day think of one person you are grateful to and tell that person so. 
  3. Examine your personal context:  Take some time to examine how your outside surrounds connect with your internal state. 
    • Are there shifts you can make in your external reality to achieve a more peaceful and productive internal reality?
    • What is your neighborhood like, how is your home taken care of, what food do you eat, and what role do you choose in creating wellness both locally and globally?

>> WEST : AIR : Finding balance

Maintaining balance in life is critical for wellbeing for yourself and for your loved ones. Remember that the labor movement and countless other individuals worked hard to create weekends

and breaks and more humane working conditions. How might you create more work/life balance in your life? As Thich Nhat Hanh said to a student who asked just how much she needed to slow down, “You never see us monks running. We walk slowly. It’s too hard to be present when you’re moving quickly.”

  1. Aspiration for your day : Identify one thing that you would love to incorporate into your workday but are certain you could not. Now try everything in your power to make that aspiration a reality. 
  2. Activities for me : Create a list of the things you love doing. It might be having a hot bath, hiking, tea with a. friend, crafting with the kids, or taking the dog to the beach. Make sure your list is easily accessible. Each week review your list and make sure you have some activities planned just for you. 

CENTRE: My daily centring practice

The fifth direction is at the centre. The four directions will aid you in having more and more and more access to the fifth direction—your most awakened self. This direction leads us inside to our core, where we center ourselves, and then, gracefully, leads us back out, renewed in a way that allows us to engage with the outside world at our best.

Practitioners of somatic experiencing believe that “the core of traumatic reaction is ultimately physiological, and it is at this level that healing begins.” It is important to find ways to metabolise your experiences and what effects your nervous system. Meditation, breathing, exercise, spending time with animals and in natural places can help you to calm your parasympathetic nervous system.

Consider, what centring practices might you do?

Allot some time for yourself each day when you don’t obligate yourself to anything, but instead give yourself total freedom to delight in one of your favorite states of being.

The centre has 2 parts; create an intention for your day, and begin to cultivate moments of mindfulness.

1. Creating an intention for your day:

a) When your day begins, close your eyes, take several deep breaths, and ask yourself, “What is my intention today?” If you have small children or loud chickens demanding your attention before you are conscious, ask yourself this while feeding your children or gathering the day’s eggs, but create an intention for the day. 

b) At the end of your day, before sleep overtakes you, ask yourself, “What can I put down? What am I ready to be done with? What don’t I need to carry with me for another day?” Put it down, and don’t pick it up again the next day. 

C) Designate a day of rest. Whether you identify it as Shabbat or the Sabbath or simply a day off, designate a weekly day of non-obligation for yourself. This will serve to remind us that if we are truly to

2. Cultivate moments of mindfulness

a) Stand or sit in a comfortable position. As you raise your hands above your head, breathe in. As you lower your arms, breathe out. Do this 20 times, slowly.

b) Commit to walking or running or wheeling or biking outside for five minutes during every hour that you’re working. During this five minutes, focus on breathing in deeply and breathing out slowly. Notice anything beautiful around you and breathe that in as well. 

c) Each time your phone rings at work, take a full inhale and exhale

3. Your Support : Initiate a co-counseling type of relationship with a colleague or friend whom you can call on regularly. Agree to counsel each other, if only for five minutes. Let your friend start the talking and listen attentively with a calming presence. Then it’s your turn. Say whatever is in your heart and mind, moving it out of your system, while your partner in the exercise listens attentively for five minutes. Repeat frequently.

This content has predominantly been taken from the book.

I highly recommend that you read it for yourself and if not, you might use the 5 Directions framework to support you in your work.

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