Secondary traumatic stress can affect those who help for a living
There are few things more rewarding than being able to provide the type of support and assistance to change, and maybe even save someone’s life. It’s easy to become invested in your clients’ safety, success and well-being; often their joys and victories become yours. However, so can their despair and trauma.
“There are always certain cases you’ll feel more of an attachment to than others,” says Ambroes Pass-Turner, Ed.D., a clinically certified domestic violence counselor with a doctorate in counseling psychology. “We have a tendency to take it home with us even though we try not to.”
It can be called secondary trauma, burnout or compassion fatigue and can cause those providing assistance to people in crisis varying levels of trauma of their own. It is not uncommon for advocates to experience symptoms of guilt, hopelessness, anger, irritability, sleeplessness, exhaustion, fear and social withdrawal after working with clients in crisis. This can often lead to career burnout.
To avoid the effects of burnout, be vigilant about these tips:
Be realistic. No one person, yourself included, will ever be able to end domestic violence forever. Don’t expect to do so. “It’s important to realize what you’re doing is necessary, but you have to find a balance,” says Eric Quarles, Ph.D., a criminal justice expert.
Set boundaries. Smartphones and our 24/7 culture make turning work off difficult, but you have to do it for your own sake. “When you leave your workplace, try to leave your work there,” Pass-Turner says.
Take care of your physical self. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. Eat a balanced diet, get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, don’t sacrifice sleep and go to the doctor regularly for checkups and screenings. The better you take care of yourself, the better you’ll be able to care for your clients.
Collaborate. Because much of the job is one-on-one, it’s easy to get stuck working in a vacuum, which can feel isolating. “I find it very helpful to talk with colleagues about what’s going on with certain cases,” Pass-Turner says. “I’m always asking ‘What am I missing?’ You never know what kinds of ideas or feedback you’ll get.”
Make new friends. It’s good to have colleagues to rely on and relate to, but they shouldn’t make up your entire social circle. “Expanding your social circle beyond your current profession is one of the first steps to being able to decompress,” Quarles says. It will help get your mind off work.