Lynn Jennings, PhD, LPCS, LSOT
Stephen Jennings, PhD, LPCS, LSOTP
Jennings Counseling and Associates - Amarillo, TX
Lynn and Stephen Jennings gave an in-depth look at our professional selves to the attendees at the sold-out Collaborative Divorce Texas Luncheon on Tuesday at the Advanced Family Law Course in San Antonio. While the title of the talk was enough to make one think we were taking a graduate level course in psychology, the presenters did a terrific job of minimizing jargon and doling out great bits of advice to the attorneys and neutrals in the room that do the stressful work of assisting people through divorce and family relationship issues.
The presentation consisted of 3 parts:
Defining Secondary Traumatic Stress (“STS”); Impact of STS in our work; and Self Care Strategies.
DEFINITION OF STS
STS is: “The experience of those who come into continued close contact with trauma survivors and their stories, including their oral and visual evidence. It’s symptoms mimic those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is a natural, consequent behavior and emotion resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by another person and it is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”
Lastly, it is critical to remember: “Pervasive stress that adheres itself to you and traumatizes the mind and body due to the empathy we have for our clients to the point of experiencing anxiety, grief, and PTSD like symptoms.” Closely-related terms include: “Compassion Satisfaction,” the pleasure we derive from doing our work well; “Vicarious Trauma/Compassion Fatigue,” inability to react sympathetically because of overexposure to crises, disasters, etc.; “Burnout,” exhaustion, depersonalization or detachment, and diminished feelings of self-efficacy; and “Countertransference” when we allow our own unresolved issues to influence our response to clients leading to avoidance and over-identification, such as taking on a protective role for a client.
Just working through the definitions had an immediate, self-evaluating effect, on what my level of STS may be. This transitioned easily to the next section.
IMPACT OF STS
“The effects of STS are cumulative and permanent, and evident in both their professional and personal life… Secondary trauma is an occupational hazard for those who practice empathy and care for others… the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help the traumatized or suffering person.” (Figley, 1993; 1995)
Not that any of this information is particularly new to anybody in our fields of endeavor. However, it certainly felt therapeutic to listen to these two accomplished professionals discuss it out loud and describe what we all are going through at work.
Factors that influence the impact of STS include:
- Unrealistic expectations for ourselves as a professional
- Personal history of trauma
- Personal coping strategies that don’t help (addiction, numbness, isolation)
- Current stressful personal life circumstances
- Insufficient training or understanding of the issues
- Barriers to consultation, education, getting help, taking a vacation
- Being new to the field (Saakvitne & Pearlman)
The most interesting take away from this part of their presentation was the fact that “Trauma Is Contagious.” The DSM (5th ed.) defines trauma as “Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence in or more of the following:
- Direct experience
- Witnessing the event
- Learning that an event occurred to a close family member or close friend
- Repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (first responders, police, etc.)
Now, take your pick to see if you suffer any of these typical stress reactions:
- Temporary changes in sleeping and eating patterns
- Anger, irritability and sorrow; detachment, shame and guilt, anxiety
- Dreams and nightmares
- Intrusive images
- Fear of being labeled abnormal for reaction
- Strains in family/work relationships
And then if you have any of the acute reactions (precursors to PTSD):
- Alterations in sensory experiences
- Inability to modulate your mood
- Substance abuse
- Hypersensitivity to emotionally charged stimuli
Ultimately leading to actual PTSD:
- Intrusive symptoms
- Flashbacks or Dissociation
- Obsessive thoughts
- Constrictive Symptoms
SELF CARE STRATEGIES
Finally, after sorting through all the bad news that Lynn and Stephen had to discuss, we arrived at the bits of wisdom:
Acknowledge that work will affect you;
Create and maintain a healthy life balance;
Be attentive and mindful of your own “unique warning signs”;
Practice self-awareness and self-care.
Ask yourself what will you do to take care of you …
on a daily basis,
on a weekly basis,
on a monthly basis,
on a 6 month basis,
on a yearly basis.
On the practical side of things, you have colleagues that you can observe. Don’t be afraid to approach them gently if you notice them exhibiting any warning signs of STS. Encourage your family and colleagues to do the same for you. Consult, for your own well being, with mental health folks, accountants, medical personnel and other experts to help you keep your balance and maintain a healthy perspective on all of this.
For lawyers, make confidential use of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, any time of day or night at: (800) 343-8527. Contact the Jennings for further information and help at firstname.lastname@example.org; (806) 356-9047, (806) 282-1137 or (806) 282-1138.