Self Care and the Humanitarian Response Worker

Posted on Dec 18, 2013 in Crisis Response, Musings and Insights

As the response community continues to manage the ongoing efforts in the Philippines, long-term stressors are coming to the fore as responders are faced with the pain of those in need. While we are not the affected populations that desperately need aid and resources, we are most definitely vulnerable to those same traumas that they are experiencing. Exposure to any length and/or type of trauma can have lasting effects on response workers. From those in the field to those providing remote support, we are all possible victims of vicarious trauma.

But I didn’t experience trauma directly – why is it affecting me?

“Vicarious trauma happens not only because you care about people who have been hurt, but because you feel committed or responsible to help. […] Feeling deeply committed and responsible can contribute to the process of vicarious trauma. It can lead to very high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations of yourself and others, and for the results you want to see from your work. For example, you may take it personally when your work or the work of your organization doesn’t have the impact you want. Ironically, your sense of commitment and responsibility can eventually contribute to you feeling burdened, overwhelmed, and hopeless in the face of great need and suffering. It can also lead you to extend yourself beyond what is reasonable for your own well-being or the best long-term interests of beneficiaries.”

Headington Institute: Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma.

What does vicarious trauma look like?

  • Intense or unpredictable feelings. You may be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed or grief-stricken. You may also feel more irritable or moody than usual.
  • Changes to thoughts and behavior patterns. You might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. These memories may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. It may be difficult to concentrate or make decisions. Sleep and eating patterns also can be disrupted — some people may overeat and oversleep, while others experience a loss of sleep and loss of appetite.
  • Sensitivity to environmental factors. Sirens, loud noises, burning smells or other environmental sensations may stimulate memories of the disaster creating heightened anxiety. These “triggers” may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated.
  • Strained interpersonal relationships. Increased conflict, such as more frequent disagreements with family members and coworkers, can occur. You might also become withdrawn, isolated or disengaged from your usual social activities.
  • Stress-related physical symptoms. Headaches, nausea and chest pain may occur and could require medical attention. Preexisting medical conditions could be affected by disaster-related stress.

American Psychological Association, Recovering Emotionally from a Disaster.

Whatever your role and exposure to trauma, please seek help and know you are not alone in your experiences or reaction to them. You must care for yourself in order to care for others. It is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indicator of strength that you do the work that you do.

Additional Resources for Dealing with Vicarious Trauma