Day in and day out - the most disturbing, horrific acts of violence, devastating disasters, and human beings who have survived every conceivable tragedy, are witnessed by First Responders, Military Personnel, and other Caregiving or Life Saving professionals. Just as a single organ does not operate independently from the rest of the body, so too, people responding to these events share the experience with every sense engaged and affected; taste, touch, smell, sound, sight, and respiration.
Some of the ‘imprinted’ sensations we are aware of, because they are so obviously unavoidable, yet others remain as footprints or clues that may not yet be visible. Anyone acting as witness to even a single episode of such magnitude experiences increased levels of stress that may be apparent in, but not limited to; blood pressure, respiration, vascular dilation, mood, cortisol, and so on.
It is a commonly held belief that, the people who do this every single day, “get used to it” or develop a “thick skin”. While it is true that a certain tolerance develops, the people who perform these types of essential services on a daily basis, are affected whether they realize it or not. In fact, it is an irony that compassion is a pre-requisite for optimal performance and often creates heroism in it’s purest form. If you have ever been the recipient of such services then you know when you are in the presence of ‘the real deal’, rather than someone who is just going through the motions.
However, the layering or accumulation of these experiences, and the lack of awareness about their effects creates a physiological ongoing response that is known as vicarious trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD, the predecessor to the anticipated change in the next DSM, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – PTSS, Stress, Depression, Obesity, Cardiovascular Disease, Hypertension, Insomnia and Diabetes are often either singularly or in combination, the result.
Much has been written about the five stages of grief, as originally identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, suffice to say that the completion of these stages are essential for First Responders, Military Personnel, and other Caregiving or Life Saving professionals. Although it is possible to be in multiple stages at a time, or not go through them in order, first and foremost, they are critical to issues of resolution.
Failure to fully allow the grieving process to play out often results in a further alteration of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual functioning. A lack of connection to others, avoiding intimacy, indulging in self medication, dissociation – a lack of physical awareness that may result in accidental injuries, risk taking behaviors, insomnia, increased or uncontrollable anger, abusive behavior – to self or others, or anything else that numbs you out, ALL are symptoms of aversion, which ultimately only brings more pain. Acceptance does NOT equal resignation.
Does holding on to the traumas you have witnessed prevent you from experiencing living life today? Have you lost a sense of connection or the ability to communicate authentically with family, friends, children, co-workers, or your community? Are you willing to consider how “keeping it in the vault”, over time occupies more and more valuable space that may be better filled with relationships or living? Are you willing to stop punishing yourself for someone lost or one you could not save, to remember instead all whose lives have been made better or possible due to your efforts?
Many people avoid addressing old issues for fear of what may be buried beneath the surface. In both my personal and professional experience I have often heard, “I am afraid that if I let myself cry or let the feelings out they will never stop” or “I will be so overwhelmed that I will not be able to function”. Just as a physical wound that looks relatively healed on the outside but is festering with infection underneath would not remain viable tissue indefinitely, so too it is with injuries of mind, emotion, and spirit.
Although intervention may be required to clean, heal, and restore the flesh underneath, so too the effects of trauma occasionally need to be re-opened. At the same time there is a difference between wounding pain and healing pain. While both exist on a continuum from mild to excruciating, in most cases healing pain is the by far easier to endure because at least it is pain with purpose.
Is there some ceremonial, or metaphorical way that you can lay down the burden of the fallen, or wounded by honoring their memory? Is it possible to place your burden somewhere else so that the earth that is your body is no longer polluted by your efforts to contain or carry it. Is there a way you can express it less directly but equally fully through movement, sound, writing, language, color, volunteerism, athletic or recreational pursuits?? Forgive yourself, love yourself and open your heart to release the others you currently bear.
Resiliency is made up of every day acts of awareness, flexibility, endurance, strength, focus, mindfulness, constructive self soothing, expression, and sharing your gifts. Reconnecting to your senses relates to increasing healthier forms of both pleasure and joy. There are many therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Re-Processing (EMDR), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Expressive Therapies, and Mindfulness Practices that have all proven effective. Find the combination that works for you. There may be one or several, that work for you, who ever said it has to add up to 100?
I hope this has if not opened a door to healing, at least provided some food for thought. I look forward to hearing your questions, concerns, and comments. Feel free to contact me directly at Blessedbe.Beth@yahoo.com or middlescapes.com.
Many thanks to my new colleague Steven for this wonderful opportunity to gather a few of my thoughts. In the belief of all that is possible.
BlessedbeBeth of middlescapes.com