I generally cringe at the term “self-care”. Yet I also know that in my line of work, burnout is a very real occupational hazard. Those of us who work regularly with refugees and other survivors of trauma often experience something called “secondary” or “vicarious” traumatization. Even though we may never have had a traumatic experience ourselves, just listening to so many stories of loss and suffering can lead us to experience some of the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And because secondary traumatization is a slow, cumulative process, it can sometimes be hard to detect until it’s too late and the stress has already burnt you up to a crackley crisp.
To reduce secondary traumatization, we are advised to follow the ABCs: Awareness, Balance and Connection. The thing about it is that these are actually good principles to follow to reduce the stress that we all have in our lives. Remembering the ABCs has been particularly helpful to me in performing my other job – caregiver of three children. Parenting is long term, stressful work; I know from experience that I am better able to to that work if I invest the time in taking care of myself as well. Here’s a brief introduction to the ABCs:
Awareness: This means paying attention to yourself and how you are feeling. It means acknowledging that you are not Superwoman (or whatever) and that it is OK not to be perfect. It means identifying the signs and symptoms of stress in your life. There is a long list of symptoms of PTSD and secondary traumatization, but I will give only a few examples of the ones I have identified in myself.
- Nightmares/sleep disturbance. For me, weird nightmarish dreams are the number one sign that I need to back off at work. I call it the Richard Pryor stress test. The first time I recognized this symptom was when I had a nightmare that Richard Pryor was chasing me around with a hypodermic needle, bugging out his eyes and saying “I’m gonna get you! I’m gonna get you! I’m gonna get you!” (picture that for a moment -if you dare). I woke up heart pounding and on the verge of screaming, but also with the crystal clear realization that I needed to take a break from doing so many asylum interview intakes.
- Preoccupation with safety of self and loved ones. I am constantly and compulsively locking the front and back doors at our house when we are at home. I receive much mockery from the other household residents about this, but it just seems too easy for some baddie to walk right in.
- Sensitivity to violence. I absolutely cannot watch violent movies anymore. Unless, ironically, it is about human rights. I guess the professional side kicks in or something.
- Difficulty managing emotions/strong emotional response. I cry like a baby at movies now. I went through half a box of Kleenex during the opening sequence of UP, but even stupid (both sappy stupid and just plain stupid) movies make me cry. Music also makes me tear up but only when it is live and either classical or church music. When people say nice things about me or my family, I just lose it. The weird thing is that I usually don’t even feel sad. I just can’t stop the waterworks. So my coping strategy is to always wear waterproof mascara and carry a pursepack of tissues.
Balance: This means taking care of yourself by doing activities that provide what YOU need to be at your best mentally, physically and spiritually. Generally, this means finding a balance of activities in your personal and work life that provide you with the opportunity to rest, play and physically or mentally escape from the stress. It’s hard sometimes, with kids around, to find that balance but sometimes you just have to do it. That’s exactly what I did on January 1, 2011.
On New Year’s Day, I had a bunch of overtired, bored and cranky kids hanging on me. So I decided to make pralines. Not necessarily logical, but I felt that it was appropriate to start off the new year doing something that I had never done before. It’s true – I had never made pralines before! Even though I spent the first 18 years of my life in south Louisiana. Even though, for more than 20 years, I have owned a cookbook by the American Sugar Cane League that includes an entire section on praline recipes. I decided that I wanted to make pralines that day, so I opened up that cookbook. There were more than 20 praline recipes made with essentially the same 5 or 6 ingredients. I understand why now, because I ended up fiddling with the ratio of brown sugar to white sugar to come up with my very own pralines recipe. The pralines I made (with some “assistance” from my sons) turned out great. Most importantly, they made me really happy. Making these New Year’s Day Pralines was something that I did for myself alone, putting some balance in what had originally had all the makings of a crappy day.
Connection: It is so important to have supportive relationships with friends, family, and community in your life. It is also important to communicate with others about your experiences, so that’s what I’m doing now. My New Year’s Day Pralines recipe follows – enjoy a little “self-care”!