Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Second Hand Suffering

30 years ago, many people did not believe that it would be possible for a person to get cancer or emphysema or COPD from cigarette smoke when they had never actually smoked a cigarette in their life. But then came the big tobacco trials and medical experts testified that cigarette smoking is hazardous not only to the smoker, but to the people around them who are exposed indirectly to the toxins. Now, we are so keenly sensitive to the dangers posed by second hand exposure that we there is now a movement to ban public smoking altogether.

Just like cigarette smoking causes physical damage to people through exposure to toxic chemicals, traumatic life events cause emotional damage to people exposing them to toxic emotional situations. In the case of emotional trauma, just like cigarette smoking, these toxic emotions not only cause damage to those who experience them first hand, but also can be damaging to those who are exposed to them second hand. My wife and I were talking with a friend of ours, who ministers to people who have been victims of abuse, and it is amazing how few people actually realize the dangers associated with second hand emotional trauma.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, often associated with soldiers and the traumatic events they experience, may result from any major physical or emotional trauma, such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, rape, and assault. Additionally, people who are regularly exposed to traumatic events in other people's lives, such as counselors and therapists, after a time can be seen to display many of the same symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder that they are trying to treat.  This can lead to a multitude of problems, for both those being counseled, and for those doing the counseling. For example, a counselor who is experiencing second hand post traumatic stress may avoid areas that are painful to them and may choose to not discuss them. "You have to be well yourself in order to help others get well, make sure you are taking time to ensure your own mental wellness" as one of my dear friends put it.

This not only applies to those who are professionals, but really for anyone who works with people who have experienced major emotionally traumatic events. I have seen this phenomenon in volunteers who talk with homeless people at the park, in leaders of addiction recovery programs, in therapists, and many others who sometimes only have casual contact with messy people. Every time a person tells you about a traumatic event in their life, they relive it to some degree, and you become a witness to the emotions and suffering these events cause. Just like second hand smoking, a little exposure is not immediately noticeable, but each and every one of these traumatic events builds up in your soul, just like the toxins from second hand smoke build up in your lungs. Eventually, these micro-wounds to your psyche add up, and you are left with a smaller yet no less real PTSD Of your own.

Recognize the Symptoms

One of the most important first steps to dealing with PTSD is to recognize the symptoms and correctly diagnose them. Most people who work for long with traumatized people become experts in spotting signs of PTSD and related disorders in others, but rarely recognize those same symptoms in their own lives. Here are some symptoms of Stress Disorders.

  • Being upset by or avoiding things that remind us of a traumatic event
  • Nightmares/Flashbacks or reliving the traumatic experience
  • Losing interest in things that used to be important to you
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia 
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble Focusing
  • Feeling Isolated or Disconnected
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others
  • Withdrawal 
If you notice any of these symptoms in your life or if those around begin to notice these symptoms, it is time for the helpers to seek help. As difficult as is is to admit that we are struggling or have a problem, it is a necessary first step to restoring our own mental health in order to be able to continue helping those around us.

Seeking Help

Probably one of our strongest weapons against second hand traumatic stress is community. Not just other people that we have superficial relationships with, but real honest community where we can not only bring our struggles without fear or shame, but also where we have people who love us enough to be honest with us. As I mentioned earlier, it is incredibly difficult for a person to recognize these symptoms in their own life; people who care enough and are willing to point our areas where we may need help are essential to help combat this blind-spot.

In addition to being places of accountability, where others can point out potential problem areas, it is also important for these communities to be places of healing. The reason we are exposed to the trauma in the first place is that sharing those experiences is healing and so just like the person we are walking through the process of healing shared with us, we need to share our own second hand traumas with others. Communities of other people who are involved in the same type of ministry are so helpful here because they can relate to the trauma themselves. Having safe places where we can share our own traumatic experiences and find heeling and support goes a long way toward restoring our own mental health.

In addition to community, professional counseling can be a useful tool for maintaining mental wellness.  If you find that you are struggling with some of the symptoms of exposure to emotional trauma, don't be ashamed to find a professional to help. When I was a police officer, we were automatically referred to a counselor any time we were involved in a major traumatic event, whether it was responding to a suicide, a major traffic accident, a fatal shooting or even a violent domestic situation, we were required to meet with a counselor to ensure we were able to continue performing our duties. In addition, we had a mental health check-up once a year to ensure the smaller events were not adding up and taking a toll on us. I believe we should do pretty much the same for people in ministry to traumatized people. Make it a point to speak with a therapist or trusted counselor anytime we encounter a particularly traumatic experience, as well as for regular mental health checkups between these major events

Remember, we have to be mentally and emotionally well before we can really help others to heal from the mental, emotional and physical wounds they have suffered. Second-hand suffering may not be as immediate in its traumatic experience, but it is no less real, and over time, no less damaging.

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