Monday, June 05, 2006

On vicarious trauma

In the coming month, you will be reading, thinking, and writing about the most horrific thing that human experience has to offer. There is no way to do this without being affected by it. The effects can be anything from melancholy to a complete emotional/spiritual crisis. The effects can also be very positive. However, because of the potential negatives, I would like to spend some time acquainting you with the signs of vicarious trauma, and how to cope with it.

Vicarious trauma is a natural consequence of empathising with another person who has experienced a traumatic event. It is the cumulative transformation in yourself as a result of that contact. It can be compounded by the stress resulting from wanting to help or prevent the suffering of the other person, and being unable to.

Psychological effects include incredible rage, frustration, despair, guilt, depression, numbness, feeling disconnected from 'everyday life', and feeling drained and exhausted. The symptoms can also be physical, spiritual, and cognitive. Some ways it can manifest include difficulties sleeping, physical weakness, nightmares, impaired concentration, over-drinking, and questioning religion or spiritual beliefs.

The ABCs of addressing vicarious trauma are as follows.

(A) Be Aware of your own needs, limits, emotions and resources. Listen to your bodies, your intuition and your feelings.

(B) Maintain a Balance between activities. It's okay to say "no". You might feel obliged to "do more", but a burnt-out activist is no use to anyone, least of all yourselves.

(C) Connect yourselves to your friends, family, and one another. Communicate when you are angry/in pain, and acknowledge to yourselves that it's real and normal. Leave comments of encouragement on each others' blogs to offset the isolation and to validate one other.

You can think of yourselves as a bank account. Every time your write, read, or think on torture, you are making a withdrawal from your bank. It is a beautiful gift to give, but if you don't make regular deposits, you will become overdrawn:

  • Take time out to do the things that make you feel energised. Eat well, renew your spiritual beliefs, spend time with your pets, talk to your friends and loved ones.
  • Control the amount of writing/reading you do per day.
  • First mourn, then act for change.

Further reading:

"I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth; and the truth rewarded me"
-- Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done.


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