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Cultivating Trauma Stewardship and Professional Resilience: A Path to Healing and Growth

Today is International Self-Care Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about self-care and the important role that it plays in your overall health.

In our fast-paced, and often chaotic, world, many professionals, like the ones that work at Covenant House Vancouver, find themselves working in fields that involve exposure to trauma, suffering, and challenging situations. Whether you’re a healthcare provider, social worker, first responder, or any other role that involves supporting others through difficult circumstances, it’s crucial to understand the concept of trauma stewardship in order to cultivate a professional resilience. By adopting these practices, we can navigate the impact of trauma on our well-being, while continuing to provide compassionate care to those who need it.

There are three important terms that we need to identity and understand in order to help ourselves so that we can help others. They are:

  • Compassion Fatigue
  • Burnout
  • Vicarious Trauma

It is important to recognize and address these phenomena to prevent long-term, negative effects on a professional’s well-being and their ability to provide effective care. While compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious trauma share similarities, they have distinct characteristics:

Compassion Fatigue specifically relates to the emotional exhaustion and decreased empathy that result from engaging with others’ trauma. Symptoms of compassion fatigue may include emotional detachment, cynicism, inability to concentrate, physical exhaustion, and a decrease in job satisfaction.

Burnout is a broader concept that encompasses chronic exhaustion, detachment, and decreased sense of accomplishment, often due to work-related stressors. It can lead to feelings of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a reduced sense of personal achievement. Burnout affects not only an individual’s work life but also their overall well-being, which impacts relationships, physical health, and mental health.

Vicarious Trauma is the emotional and psychological residue that results from indirect exposure to the trauma experiences of others. It is a cumulative effect that occurs when individuals repeatedly hear, witness, or engage with, stories and accounts of trauma from clients or patients. Over time, the emotional toll of this exposure can impact professionals by causing changes in their worldview, belief systems, and overall emotional well-being. Symptoms of vicarious trauma may include intrusive thoughts, heightened anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, and a general sense of unease or distress.

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is a practice that involves treating ourselves with kindness, care, and understanding, in times of difficulty or personal suffering. It is a vital aspect of well-being and psychological resilience. Self-compassion encompasses three essential elements, which work together to foster self-acceptance, emotional well-being, and inner strength. They are:

  • Self-Kindness: Self-kindness involves being warm, gentle, and having an understanding towards ourselves, particularly during times of struggle, failure, or pain. Instead of harsh self-criticism or self-judgment, self-kindness encourages us to offer ourselves compassion, empathy, and support. It means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would extend to a close friend or loved one.
  • Common Humanity: The second element of self-compassion is recognizing and acknowledging our shared human experiences. It involves recognizing that suffering, imperfections, and setbacks, are a natural and universal part of the human condition. Instead of feeling isolated or alone in our struggles, we realize that others have faced similar challenges and that we are not alone in our experiences. Embracing our common humanity helps us cultivate a sense of connection, empathy, and understanding, which reduces feelings of shame or isolation. It reminds us that it is okay to ask for help and that we are all on this journey together.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being present and non-judgmentally aware of our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, in the moment. In the context of self-compassion, mindfulness helps us observe our suffering with openness and acceptance, rather than becoming overwhelmed by it. By being mindful of our struggles, we can cultivate a compassionate and non-reactive stance towards ourselves, and acknowledge our pain without judgment. Mindfulness allows us to create space for self-reflection, self-compassion, and self-care, fostering a greater sense of calm and self-understanding.

By integrating these three elements, we can develop a compassionate relationship with ourselves. Self-compassion does not mean self-indulgence or self-pity; rather, it is a practice of self-care, resilience, and personal growth. It allows us to embrace our imperfections, learn from our mistakes, and cultivate a sense of inner strength and well-being.

Research has shown that practicing self-compassion has numerous benefits, including increased emotional resilience, reduced stress, improved self-esteem, and a greater, overall well-being. By nurturing a compassionate attitude towards ourselves, we can develop the capacity to face life’s challenges with greater self-acceptance, kindness, and emotional balance.

Trauma Stewardship

Trauma stewardship refers to the conscious and intentional process of addressing the effects of exposure to trauma on individuals who work in professions that deal with the care of other human beings. While dedicating themselves to the well-being of others, youth workers, counsellors, and other professionals, often absorb the pain, suffering, and distress of their clients, which can lead to emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and burnout. Trauma stewardship involves recognizing the impact of providing care and support to others, and the importance of implementing strategies to mitigate its effects.

Here are the 16 behaviours that professionals may experience/exhibit when supporting others during their struggles and trauma (Please see slides 17–24 for these various behaviours). Being able to recognize these tendencies is the first step towards self-care. Do you recognize any of these behaviours in your own practices?  

The remainder of the slides walk you through the process of identifying your responses when supporting someone with trauma, along with ways to work through these behaviours and work towards healthy and sustainable self-care practices.

As caring professionals, it is impossible to support others and not be affected by their struggles and trauma. Being aware of your responses, and proactively changing them will help build your resilience and avoid burnout.  

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

– Dr. Rachel Remen