Mar 06 2019

How to Take Care of Yourself While Doing Really Hard Work

by Diana McCue

CASA creates many opportunities to help volunteers care for themselves as they care for kids and families. Our Advocacy Program Manager Diana McCue shares her story about experiencing the symptoms of burnout.

I was making my way home from my first job in the social services field when I heard it. Or, it wasn’t so much that I heard it, because as soon as I became aware of it I realized that it had been hissing below my thoughts for the eight months that I had been working closely with kids who had experienced trauma. It lay just below my awareness, but once I noticed it, its whisper became audible whenever my thoughts were quiet. It said: you’re not doing enough you’re not doing enough you’re not doing enough.

When I think about vicarious trauma, I think about the moment I became aware of this underlying refrain. Noticing this feeling of helplessness and hopelessness was the first step on my journey to learn how to manage the emotional impact of working closely with people who have experienced trauma. Over time, I have learned how to create and maintain boundaries and fall back on connection and coping skills so that I can remain positively engaged in the work I care so much about.

You may not have heard the terms “vicarious trauma” or “secondary trauma,” but you have definitely heard the term “burnout.” Although research defines these terms slightly differently, all describe potential impacts to professionals and volunteers working with people who have experienced trauma. Chief Program Officer Emily LeBlanc explains, “Burnout is to secondary trauma what PTSD is to acute trauma. Having some acute symptoms to sitting with someone in trauma is a totally normal response.” These symptoms are similar to primary trauma symptoms, including hypervigilance, racing thoughts, and difficulty sleeping, among others. By reacting protectively, Leblanc explains, “Your brain is doing what it is supposed to do, and it means that you have empathy.” Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and it is distinct from sympathy in that it involves actually experiencing those feelings; social work researcher Brene Brown explains that it is the difference between  feeling with and feeling forCheck out her great animated short explaining the difference on YouTube.

In essence, the terms “vicarious trauma” and “secondary trauma” describe the fact that the tremendous responsibility and privilege of caring for people who experience trauma impacts us in both difficult and joyful ways. “We experience a lot of secondary trauma, but we also experience a lot of secondary healing…there is something very transformative about watching a kid heal,” says LeBlanc. Learning how to move from “I’m not doing enough” to “I am making the difference I can make” involves learning the skills of connection, coping skills, and boundaries.

CASA creates many opportunities to help volunteers care for themselves as they care for kids and families. I spoke to CASA volunteer Gloria Rodriguez about her strategies for managing secondary trauma. She served as a supervisor for the Forensic Chemistry Department of the Austin Police Department for 27 years, and her role involved reporting to crime scenes and leading the forensic investigation of these crimes. After retiring from APD, Rodriguez became a CASA volunteer on a case that had been open for four years.

Rodriguez confesses her hardest moments have involved asking herself, “What am I missing, what am I not doing right?” when a child on her case was experiencing something hard. LeBlanc and Rodriguez both recommend connecting with friends and family in these hard moments for reminders about how to help themselves. Rodriguez says she has a strong faith and relies on prayer to provide spiritual support. She also uses journaling and continuing education opportunities to provide her with perspective.

“I have to stop myself from taking responsibility for another individual’s choices,” says Rodriguez. Her relationship with her CASA supervisor serves as a sounding board to help recognize when she needs to fall back on her coping skills to remain positively engaged on a case.

If you notice that you’re experiencing symptoms of secondary trauma (as a volunteer, nonprofit professional, social worker, or in whatever you do), first, do what feels good for you. Take care of yourself and re-engage with the rest of the world, whether that involves therapy, church, exercise, family time, or something else. Talk to your supervisor about what you’re feeling and how you can care for yourself. For CASA volunteers, there are also many ways to connect with other advocates through in-person meet ups or our Facebook forum. “If [CASA volunteers] notice symptoms lasting days or weeks and [they] see it impairing other relationships, I would encourage them to seek more formal help,” says LeBlanc. This includes therapy. EMDR therapy is an evidence-based treatment for secondary trauma and can be very helpful.

For me, personal and professional relationships are the first line of defense. Proactively, I’ve focused on keeping my body and mind healthy and strong by prioritizing good sleep, nutrition and exercise. I invest in my relationships, including my relationship with my therapist. Strong boundaries and the belief that, as LeBlanc says, “We can’t take people’s trauma away from them, so we shouldn’t take their healing away from them either” are also essential for me. On particularly hard days when I notice that I’m feeling irritable, hypervigilant, or having trouble sleeping, I know that I need to expend a lot of energy through vigorous exercise, activism, or laughing a lot with a friend. Singing at the top of my lungs alone in my car is one of my strongest medicines.

There are hard days, and there are joyful days. With help from boundaries, connection, coping skills, empathy, and activism, I am doing enough; I am making the difference I can make.

March 2019 Advocacy

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