Sunday, November 11, 2007

Trauma -- is it catching?

When a study came out recently suggesting that you can 'catch' obesity from your family or friends, it sure got a lot of press. But a tendency to gain weight is not the only non-viral or non-bacterial thing we can pick up from other humans -- we can take on their trauma, too.

Anybody in chaplaincy or the other helping professions knows this. If you talk to someone who has undergone a great physical or emotional trauma you start to feel the weight of it, too. You may even start to develop the same physical symptoms as the person you are caring for. If they can't sleep and wake up in the middle of the night with terrible nightmares, you may start having trouble sleeping at night and might start waking up with terrible nightmares. But how does this process of contagion of trauma actually happen?

That was the question the speaker was pondering at a lecture I went to the other day on vicarious trauma (sometimes called second or secondary trauma). An answer occurred to me that I think might help in understanding this. It occurred to me to think of secondary trauma kind of like the way we think of the fight or flight impulse, something that was very useful to the humans who lived before civilization, but that is now potentially deadly for the modern human who is divorced from the pre-modern context.

Fight or flight refers to the physical changes that a person undergoes when he or she feels under threat. These changes -- including the release of adrenaline, the increase of the heart beat and an inhibition of digestion -- are quite useful if the typical threat one faces is a physical threat: they help one either fight stronger or run away faster.

But for most of us -- for example, those of us who work in a modern office environment -- the threats we face ("am I going to lose my job if my boss doesn't like this report?") are not physical at all. We don't need physical strength or speed to cope with them. But we still suffer from increased heart beat, upset stomachs and sweaty palms. And these can be much more than uncomfortable symptoms -- they can contribute to real medical problems like heart disease.

I postulate that the process of trauma being able to be communicated from one person to another may also have had a pre-modern function that is of little help to the modern person (especially the modern chaplain). Way back when, people lived in small bands. Any trauma that affected one person in the group had the potential to affect all of them. Thus, the transmission of trauma from one person to another helped the group to act as a collective against the threat that caused the trauma. And, therefore, the ability of trauma to be transmitted from one person to another within the group helped the group to thrive and survive.

But that same function is of no benefit to the chaplain of today. We take on bits of trauma from folks who are not part of any group we both belong to. But that received trauma doesn't lead us back towards a change in the behavior of a group that both we and the directly traumatized person belong to.

This all underscores, once again, the importance of self-care for chaplains and others in the helping professions. If we don't figure out ways to take care of ourselves amidst our work, then our work literally can kill us.

What have you done for yourself, today?

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