When you think about it, there are dozens of professions that are focused on improving society. We think of first responders in terms of firefighters, law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, and 911 dispatchers. However, we forget about our mental health professionals, teachers, child protective services, and dozens of other professions that are exposed to the traumas others are coping with. Reducing Secondary Traumatic Stress: Skills for Sustaining a Career in the Helping Professions is designed to serve those who serve others by helping them learn to address the hardest parts of their jobs.
Early on, Miller speaks about burnout harking back to Freudenberger’s Burn-Out. He incorrectly associates Maslach’s work with Freudenberger’s, perhaps because that’s the narrative that has been spun. (I should say that Freudenberger’s book isn’t the oldest book on burnout: that distinction belongs to Professional Burn-Out.)
Miller, however, correctly identifies the key to burnout as feelings of inefficacy. He challenges the notion that you’re burned out at the end of a long career and explains that burnout happens more frequently at the beginning of a career – not the end. Of course, this is consistent with the research we did when building Extinguish Burnout.
Miller similarly pushes back against compassion fatigue. He argues that it’s not that you’ve expressed too much compassion, but rather that you’ve closed yourself off to all feelings and empathy with the result of failing to express compassion for those you’re there to serve. In Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?, we speak about it from the perspective that professionals have failed to do their self-care. The result is the same: you shut down, and it’s this shutdown that’s perceived as compassion fatigue.
Too many mental wellness programs are little more than herbal tea, soft lighting, and a once-a-month yoga session. While these practices have some value, they’re often crushed by the onslaught of 50-minute sessions, crisis calls, and complex cases. The physician that can’t find time for a bathroom break between 15-minute patient appointments won’t find what they need at the bottom of a teacup. The paramedic whose sleep was just interrupted to respond to an accident doesn’t need soft lighting.
We can’t assume that we can put a band-aid on a gaping wound, and it will all be okay. We have to match the care that we give to the need.
Feel or No Feel – There Is No Try
My apologies to Yoda. You can’t selectively let in some feelings and dampen others. You can’t decide to let joy through but block depression. When we numb – either naturally or with pharmaceutical assistance – we block both the good and the bad. This is part of Miller’s point: when we try to block out the struggles of empathy, we necessarily prevent the development of compassion. We can either choose to open ourselves to experiences and live, or we can wall ourselves off from the world and from others. If we choose that option, we disconnect ourselves from the broader community and their support for when we’re feeling low.
No Feeling is Final
What we know about feelings is that they change. Even moods change over the longer course of time. (See Emotion and Adaptation.) It is hard to remember in the moment that the feeling will pass. (See Capture.) However, the only thing constant about feelings is that they do change.
There is something to be said for actively shaping your thoughts while accepting them. One can work to hardwire happiness without preventing acceptance of other emotions. (See Hardwiring Happiness.) Too many people believe that feelings happen to you – and it can certainly feel that way. However, we know that you can consciously influence your feelings by focusing attention on the emotions that you want to have. Caution is appropriate here so that we don’t over emphasize what can be done, as Bright-sided and Happier? Are concerned about.
Rumination is the opposite. It’s focusing on the same situation and the challenges associated with it without finding ways to resolve the problem. Instead of problem solving, rumination catches us in a net of repetition. (See Capture.) If we want to break free from rumination, we must either seek to solve the problem, or we must learn to let go.
Miller proposes an ACES (Action, Concrete, Experiential, and Specific) model for problem solving. You know it’s not rumination when you’re coming up with specific, concrete actions that are doable. Problem solving doesn’t mean that you must solve the end problem yourself. Even identifying the specific set of actions you’re going to do to ask for help is enough to allow your mind to let go of it.
It used to be that I’d be caught in a loop of trying to not forget something that I needed to do in the morning. Now, I grab my phone, send myself a quick one-line email, and go back to sleep. Knowing that I’ll see it in the morning allows me to let it go and move on to the important need for sleep.
Letting go of something is the other option. It’s easier when you’re deferring it, but for some things that we ruminate on, we need to accept that we have no control of. We can’t prevent something from happening or cause it to happen. No amount of rumination will change the outcome. As uncomfortable as it can be, sometimes we just must let the cards play out the way they’re going to play.
The narratives around burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress are collectively focused on a false dichotomy. They generally believe that your energy is drained or consumed at work and refilled at home. The expectation is that work grinds you down, and your home life is fulfilling and life-giving. However, for many people, this isn’t the case.
At work, they feel effective and fulfilled in their role. They know what to do and how to get good results. At home, they’re in a constant struggle with their spouse. Their teenage kids don’t listen to them and are downright hostile. They don’t know what they did wrong or what it will take to fix it – but they know they don’t like it.
More often, it’s in the middle, where some things at work build and renew a person – but there are times of exposure to trauma and tragedy. At home, they find both love and challenge. It’s not about the place but rather about the moment-to-moment environment that defines whether someone is receiving more energy than they’re giving.
Driving with the Brakes On
If you’ve ever had the experience of having a car brake caliper freeze up, you quickly have discovered what it’s like to drive with the brakes on. (Hint: it doesn’t end well.) A less eventful situation might be what happens when you forget and leave a parking brake on. Unfortunately, that’s what happens with too many people. Their sympathetic and parasympathetic systems get locked into a fight, and they get stuck or oscillate. If we want better results, we’ll find a way to either have the brakes on or put our foot on the accelerator.
Generally, when the parasympathetic system (brakes) is engaged, the sympathetic system shuts down – but not always immediately. With patience and practice, it becomes easier to downregulate and recover more quickly when we do become triggered.
Blessin’ or Lesson
Miller quotes a Southern saying that “everyone you meet is a blessin’ or a lesson.” In other words, they’ll either attempt to bring you good or bad. Either way, you must learn to work with them. Knowing ahead of time which one they are is one step towards Reducing Secondary Trauma Stress.