What it is and What to do About It.
As parents, educators, coaches, public servants, medical or mental health practitioners, we are subjected to the extreme stress involved in helping others. The people we help go through severe pain and struggle as human animals on planet trauma. They are desperately trying to navigate an over-stimulating and unpredictable world, and so are we. Self-preservation tactics kick in for them and for us without our conscious awareness. We see and experience the neurobiological fight, flight, freeze, fold response many times over, for good reason, and it wears us down.
Many of us helpers are Empaths: exquisitely sensitive creatures that absorb the emotional states of others. Our high levels of sensitivity need balancing with the kinds of tools that temper them or we don’t fare very well over time.
I never knew I was an Empath until I read the most important book I’ve read in a long time, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Highly Sensitive People. If you don’t think you’re a highly sensitive person, pause for a moment, and see if you can be honest with yourself about why you haven’t been able to give up for good some of the less healthy habits you have. Through her book, Judith Orloff, MD made it clear to me that Empaths feel the pain of others so deeply that they use substances and engage in numbing behaviors as a way to avoid feeling the overwhelm. Empaths choose to help people because they care so much but they develop fatigue and burnout through the effort. Secondary Traumatic Stress can be par for the course.
If we are helping anyone who suffers, there are 3 ways to start taking care of us too:
1. With a simple Google of the term, learn more about the signs and symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress, the risk factors, and what you can do about it.
2. In The Empath’s Survival Guide, learn more about how to protect yourself as an Empath without having to resort to unhealthy habits. Dr. Orloff’s tool of “shielding” is my favorite (probably because I need it the most).
3. Start bringing your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones down right now, right this very second, by noticing the solid ground beneath your feet. Uncross your legs. Feel your feet on the ground. Focus on how sturdy and stable the ground is beneath your feet. Wiggle your toes in your “boots.” “Feel your toes in your boots and your boots on the ground.” Breathe in through your nose while you do this. Be persistent with this. Imagine roots growing out from the bottom of your feet, or being at the tide at the beach sinking in a little to the wet sand. Spend 60 seconds right now just grounding and breathing in through your nose. Sometimes it helps to focus on your seat in the chair, planted like an anchor in the ocean’s floor. Just 60 seconds. Now notice what starts to happen inside…do this anywhere and everywhere. Do this any time of day. Do this sitting, standing, laying down, working, resting, or driving around. It lowers heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones. Ground. Ground. Ground.