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Wise Online- Week 7
Week 7 – Trauma, Empathy & Burnout
This week we focus on trauma, empathy and burnout. How do you nourish yourself and look after yourself in times of stress or difficulty? What self-care techniques do you practice to decompress, regulate and return to your window of tolerance? How do you show empathy for others but ensure you don’t take on too much of other peoples energy, distress or trauma?
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings, to the extent of imagining what the other person is thinking or feeling, and responding with care. So what is the difference between empathy and kindness? Empathy is the intellectual identification of the thoughts, feelings, or state of another person. Emotional empathy refers to the experience of deep connection with another person, including feeling distressed when observing the other person’s distress.
The Importance of Balancing Compassion With Empathy
Emotional empathy enriches our relationships with others, but it becomes a problem when we are overwhelmed by our emotional response to other people’s distress, sometimes leading to burnout or vicarious (secondary) trauma. Emotional empathy can also distract us from having an accurate judgment of what the other person really needs. Our capacity to perceive and resonate with others’ suffering allows us to feel and understand their pain. This skill in responding mindfully to others’ pain results in us remaining equanimous whilst also motivating us to respond with compassion.
The ability to demonstrate compassion and kindness to ourselves and others and express a deep understanding of what they are experiencing or going through is a wonderful skill. We must however, take steps to ensure ongoing feelings of empathy towards others doesn’t tip us over the edge where we come out of our window of tolerance. Although empathy is an important skill in social connection, leadership and career success, it is important to find a balance. This is where mindfulness can help.
Minimising the Impact of Secondary Trauma
Vicarious trauma (or secondary trauma) refers to an individual’s own psycho-emotional reactions due to his or her exposure to others’ traumatic experiences. For professionals who are working with traumatised populations, vicarious trauma becomes a much more serious issue because it can potentially compromise the individuals’ health and well-being.
Mindfulness can help us to overcome emotional exhaustion and vicarious trauma. We can learn effective self-directed techniques and tools to maintain equanimity in the face of danger and human suffering, thereby reducing the incidence of secondary or vicarious trauma, PTSD, burnout or other stress-related health concerns.
Studies measuring stress in health care professionals and individuals working in emergency services/ trauma-related professions found an eight week mindfulness meditation program resulted in a significant decline in emotional exhaustion and empathy fatigue.
Mindfulness is a useful tool for regulating emotions by increasing awareness and developing flexibility and adaptability in responding to our own emotional experiences. Mindfulness encourages acceptance rather than avoidance of our experiences and decreases rumination about past and future events that can exhaust our energy. When we are mindful and accept sensations and thoughts that arise, we likely reduce our emotional numbing.
Firstly, let’s revise the window of tolerance so we can identify the early warning signs of hypoarousal (including trauma, burnout and empathetic distress fatigue).
Know the Signs
Before we can respond to trauma or burnout, we first need to recognise it. It is important to notice the nonverbal cues that someone is struggling with traumatic stress. We can assess trauma through direct conversation (i.e. reading facial expressions and noticing nonverbal cues) as well as paying attention to the following basic internal and external signals that suggest someone may be experiencing trauma and outside of their window of tolerance:
- Muscle tone extremely slack (collapsed, noticeably flat affect)
- Muscle tone extremely rigid
- Noticeably pale skin tone
- Exaggerated startle response
- Excessive sweating
- Noticeable dissociation (person appears highly disconnected from their body)
- Person reports feeling they are a long way away
- Person cannot hear our voice and/or constantly asks others to repeat questions
- Person is staring off into space without blinking and not responding to any questions
- Person loses sense of time and cannot remember what happened previously
- Consciousness appears to fluctuate—you notice the person “isn’t there” or seems preoccupied with internal distraction
- Person cannot maintain a continuity of story or experience in conversation (e.g., jumping from topic to topic)
- In conversation with the individual who is experiencing trauma, you yourself may begin to feel foggy, confused, or like you’re floating. This can be a sign that the person you’re connected with is dissociating
- Emotional volatility (enraged, excessive crying, terror)
- Disorganised speech or slurring words
- Reports of blurred vision
- Inability to make eye contact during interviews/interactions
- Reports of flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
Early Warning Signs of Vicarious Trauma, Burnout and Empathic Distress Fatigue.
- Feeling emotionally exhausted and drained (unable to perform basic tasks). Nothing left in the tank.
- Depression, guilt
- Increased negative thought patterns
- Sense of hopelessness
- Reduced ability to feel empathy towards other individuals, including clients, employees or family/friends
- A sense of resentment towards demands being put on you at work and at home/ decreased job satisfaction
- Feeling unappreciated
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Change in appetite or sleep habits
- Frequent headaches or muscle pain
- Lowered immunity, frequent illnesses
- Increased conflict in relationships
- Withdrawal from friends/ family emotionally
- Feeling trapped and defeated
- Detachment, feeling alone in the world
- Loss of motivation, passion or drive
- Feeling nothing (apathy).
Dialing Down the Empathy
We can take steps to rectify empathic distress fatigue as well as our negative mind states by first practicing self-compassion and kindness to ourselves. Can we invite a sense of kindness and acceptance to arise in our own heart? Can we cultivate empathy and compassion for others but still remain balanced and within our window of tolerance?
The practice below will help you to dial down the impact that stress and emotional empathy/secondary trauma is having on you, particularly if you are around others who are experiencing suffering, or you are working in a role where you are working in a heightened state of hyperarousal or hypervigilance.
WEEKLY PRACTICE TASKS
INFORMAL PRACTICE- Unconditional Kindness
The informal practice this week is to do something kind for someone else. This is a RANDOM ACT OF UNCONDITIONAL KINDNESS which means that you are not doing this to get anything in return. Be creative- e.g. pay for someones coffee behind you in the drive-through, buy a parking ticket for someone and place it on their windscreen, cook a meal for an elderly neighbour, leave a note for someone expressing your gratitude about something they did well, write a letter to a colleague letting them know you appreciate them being a positive pillar in the office, brighten someones day who appears to be having a bad day by leaving lollies or chocolate on their desk, leave flowers on a neighbours door-step, make a cup of tea or coffee for a colleague. The possibilities are endless be creative!
Have fun with this activity and see if you can do something kind EVERY DAY. This should set you up to be kinder to yourself too.
FORMAL PRACTICE- Dialing Down the Empathy
Practice this week Dialing Down the Empathy. This is a mindfulness practice to help us cultivate kindness, care and respect for ourselves. Although emotional empathy enriches our relationships it is important to find a perfect balance between kindness and empathy. Mindfulness can help us to decompress and nourish ourselves, regulate our emotions and avoid vicarious (secondary trauma), compassion fatigue or other stress-related health concerns such as burnout. Movement practice is also important here. You may like to stretch the body or perform walking meditation before this practice. Experiment with having different anchors of attention to support your window and help with grounding. This could be focusing on the soles of your feet, your palms, the back of your body, the sense of smell, sounds, sights around you (i.e naming objects internally (e.g., “couch; the color blue”) or placing a hand on an object that feels stabilising to touch such as a solid object or the floor.
***Be mindful that this practice may bring up feelings that are contrary to what we are actually working towards. This is perfectly normal. For example, you may notice feelings that seem counterintuitive, for example like you’re not caring enough by reducing your empathy. This is where kindness is important. Kindness produces chemicals and positive emotions in our brain and sending this kindness outwards can help us to remain balanced on the inside. The inner process of turning down the empathy dial is a skill and a practice that must be practiced regularly to help us remain balanced emotionally. Demonstrating kindness to others can often help us strike that sweet spot and find balance.
- How did it feel? Was there any resistance to cultivating kindness to yourself or to turning down the empathy dial?
- How did you manage to do this effectively?
- Does it feel easier to offer kindness to yourself or to others? Why do you think this is? Notice if it starts to get easier over the course of the week.
Week 7 : Dialing Down the Empathy