Five Self-care Tips to Avoid Vicarious Trauma

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Hillsides Senior Clinical Manager Paul Inglizian on the job with Juliet Johnson, a program manager at the Bienvenidos Family Resource Centers, East Los Angeles.

By Paul Inglizian, LCSW, Hillsides Senior Clinical Manager

At Hillsides, most of our therapists work with clients who have been exposed to trauma at some point in their life. Working with our clients always puts us in a position of exposure to trauma. Even though it is the clients’ experience, we so often absorb the traumatic elements of what they have experienced, often on a daily basis. Without a strategy for coping with this exposure, we are vulnerable to the effects of this vicarious trauma.

In addition, you don’t have to be a therapist to experience vicarious trauma.  Anyone trying to comfort and support a friend or family member through a stressful situation is also at risk.

Luckily, there are many self-care activities that can be helpful in combating this problem, such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga. When I am feeling very overwhelmed, I have found that the following practices help me come back to center:

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Every morning, run through three things you are grateful for. These could be gratitude for your family, for good health, for having a roof over your head, or for the sun, the clouds, and the sea, for example. When you stop to think, there is a lot for all of us to be grateful for.

If you experience fear or anxiety, take action.  Remember, your symptoms of fear or anxiety might be reflections of what the client/family member/friend is experiencing. Consciously refuse to accept fear or anxiety at face value. Remind yourself that you may be experiencing vicarious trauma and that you have a choice in how you react to it. Scale the fear or anxiety on a ten-point scale, with ten being super fearful or anxious, then decide to take action to decrease the number on the scale. For example, if you feel tension in your jaw that you scale at a seven, decide you are going to go on a short walk to decrease the tension from a seven to a five. Go on that walk. Don’t forget to breathe!

Have faith at all times. Know that you will get through this. Have faith that you will feel better when you conquer whatever negative symptoms you are experiencing. Know that you are a good and lovable person. Despite the vicarious trauma, you got this, and you know what to do.  You will take action, and succeed.

Self-affirm. Keep up the positive self-talk, such as: “Despite my fear or anxiety, I know I am doing the best I can,” “Despite these overwhelming feelings, I will persevere and conquer this thing no matter what,” or “Fear or anxiety does not define who I am, which is a capable, successful, wonderful person/clinician/helper/staff member.”

Be mindful. Stay present-centered in your thoughts by focusing on the here and now. Be aware of your negative thoughts and any tension you may be experiencing. Challenge or reframe negative thoughts by consciously relaxing and releasing any tension you may be experiencing. As a grounding exercise, look around and identify what you see around you. Pay attention to the sounds you hear. Take a few deep breaths. When you take a walk, notice the trees, the colors all around you, the temperature, sounds you hear, and scents you smell.

Paul has worked at Hillsides since 2011. As a senior clinical manager, he provides individual and group supervision to various programs at the agency, family preservation, wraparound, foster care, and school-based/outpatient clinicians.  His goal is to know every single one of the 507 employees of Hillsides.

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