As we all know, I like to nerd out about trauma. But sometimes, it hits too close to home, and I need help in continuing to do the work that brings me into contact with trauma (in addition to continuing to, like, be a human in contact with other humans).
Last week sucked. Not only was I stressed out about the imminent start of the fall semester, but I also learned that a friend is in an ongoing domestic violence situation.
One of the reasons I study trauma and bring it into the college classroom is that I haven’t experienced too much of it myself, and I tend to know what triggers me, so I know what I should steer clear of if I don’t want to lose a day of productivity to flashbacks. Given that I walk through the world with a great deal of privilege, I view it as activism and advocacy to help others learn about trauma so that we can all be more trauma-informed, whether that means using trigger warnings in your teaching materials and your internetting, or taking action to try to end some of the systemic ways that societies perpetuate trauma.
But no, last week’s trauma exposure made everything into a big nope for me. And that’s when I knew I needed a bit of additional help to make it through.
Luckily, a dear friend had gifted me a book a while ago on trauma stewardship, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others.
I dove in and devoured it within the week, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you work in a field where you’re exposed to trauma, whether that’s medicine, education, refugee work, domestic violence advocacy, and so on. Of course I also recommend what I jokingly refer to as my “trauma Bible” (all the funnier because I’m an atheist), Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
The authors, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk, define trauma stewardship as “the entire conversation about how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences” (6). They go on to offer a number of ways to manage one’s life during engagement with trauma stewardship, including self-care tips as well as holistic ideas about vocation.
One thing I like about this book is that it’s rooted in an awareness of the delicate balance between societal, organizational, and individual structures and experiences. As a folklorist, I’m especially attuned to these interaction, as one of the ways we often define folklore is as the expressive culture that hangs between the individual and tradition. For instance, Lipsky and Burk write:
Oppression can be defined as the negative outcome experienced by people who are targeted by the cruel exercise of power; the term is generally used to describe how a certain group is being kept down by unjust use of authority, force, or societal norms. When a society institutionalizes oppression formally or informally, the result is called systematic oppression. Around the globe, liberation movements promote the undoing of negative outcomes and the elimination of the causes of individual and systemic oppression. (28)
I like this framing because while many types of trauma are undoubtedly perpetuated by people who are, quite simply, being selfish and/or cruel jerks, we cannot have a useful and accurate conversation about trauma without discussing the systemic ways in which it is facilitated and continued. (again, this is why I’ve been obsessively reading about misogyny lately)
Trauma exposure, and our response to it, is one of the main concepts in the book: “A trauma exposure response has occurred when external trauma becomes internal reality” (42). It happens when we internalize the trauma of others, when we put up walls in order to deal with the things we witness, when we numb out so that we can get through the day. The authors describe 16 warnings signs of trauma exposure response, which I’ll list in part here:
- Feeling helpless and hopeless
- A sense that one can never do enough
- Diminished creativity
- Inability to embrace complexity
- Minimizing others’ discomfort/pain/feelings
- Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments
- Inability to listen to others or deliberate avoidance
- Dissociative moments
- Anger and cynicism
- Inability to empathize, numbing, and addictions
- Grandiosity (an inflated sense of importance related to one’s work, a.k.a. “If I leave, this whole operation will fall apart/we won’t save anyone/etc”)
Those who’ve studied trauma (or experienced it) will doubtless recognize some of these as primary trauma symptoms too, but I think one of the major differences is that in the trauma exposure response we don’t experience as much “amygdala hijack” or as much primal fight/flight/freeze response on a basic survival level. Trauma exposure response still sucks, though, and can compromise our ability to be fully present in both our work lives and our personal lives.
What do we do about all this? The good news is, there are some decent strategies outlined in the book and backed up by research. The author quote some findings about shared stress-resistant traits enumerated by van der Kolk as follows:
A sense of personal control. Stress-resistant people perceive a connection between their own actions and how they feel; they believe in their own capacity to influence the course of their lives.
Pursuit of personally meaningful tasks. They are present and engaged in their lives, and this helps them to be active, instead of passive, during challenging times.
Healthy lifestyle choices. They show “decreased use or general avoidance of known dietary stimulants of refined white sugar, caffeine and nicotine; they seek out multiple periods of hard exercise each week; and, they find time each day for a period of relaxation.”
Social support. They have relationships with others who can serve “as a buffer in dealing with difficult situations.” (quoted in Lipsky and Burk, 121)
After enumerating the symptoms of trauma exposure response, the authors describe their strategies for finding a way to trauma stewardship that is meant to be long-term sustainable. They craft a five-part approach, with some of the major questions we’re supposed to ask of ourselves and use as reflective grist being:
- Why am I doing what I’m doing?
- Is this working for me?
- Where am I putting my focus?
- Who can I turn to for support?
- What is my intention for today?
Each of these questions had a series of detailed explanations and examples, so what might seem vague and woo-woo in a sentence actually makes a lot of sense in a deeper context. To take the first question as an example, when doing trauma work it’s especially important that we know what motivates us to show up for that work and give of ourselves and our resources in order to help others. Otherwise, it’s quite easy to become fatigued or burned out. The authors also interview people who’ve worked with trauma in various capacities, so that their stories of engaging with trauma exposure response can help illustrate the points at hand (I also liked reading about other people’s journeys because it made me feel less alone).
Overall, I read this book at exactly the right time and found it immensely rewarding and helpful. I intend to use the list of trauma exposure responses to monitor myself for these symptoms so that I don’t start manifesting them too much or for too long at a time. I also have already found the questions generated in the five-part approach useful for addressing burnout in myself, and thinking/feeling my way through it to solutions so I can keep going with my teaching and my related work.
If you’re doing work that brings you into contact with others’ trauma, whether you’re on a college campus or caring for a sick or elderly family member or working in a prison or doing activist work, I highly recommend checking out this book. I plan to pass it around my college classes when I teach about trauma this semester, and I’ve already mentioned it to friends and colleagues who are in higher ed, mental health areas, and more.