Today is a perfect day to talk about trauma and self-care. Vicarious trauma occurs from exposure to other people’s trauma. We usually think of ER doctors, counselors, police, and other first responders as professions that are likely to experience this, but lawyers are also susceptible and do experience vicarious trauma as well. And how could we not when we help clients almost always in their darkest time of need. If you practice in an area that has a real human component, then you generally are exposed to sad, traumatic stories.
But it’s the dirty secret in this profession, and we’re supposed to act like nothing affects us. Those that admit that we’re affecting by this exposure may be seen as weak. However, those that pretend these depressing, traumatic stories don’t affect them, often end up self-medicating with alcohol or ignore signs of depression; problems that are absolutely a prevalent problem in our industry. So you can act brand new if you want, but the truth is that attorneys have and do experience vicarious trauma and those that ignore it, don’t fare very well.
The best approach to help alleviate this problem is known as self-care. Self-care is intentional acts you take to care for your mind and body. I recommend Trauma Stewardship, a great book that provides practical advice on identifying vicarious trauma and steps for self-care.
One of the biggest obstacles for self-care (other than the stigma that comes from acknowledging you need to take care of your mental health) is time. Who has the time to take 30 minute bath or meditate or an hour to paint or whatever artsy thing most people recommend?
We are at a loss for time, I know. What can we do then to make sure we’re keeping our mind clear and capable so that we can keep doing the hard work we do?
One. Take a moment to pause. Sometimes we’re so determined to keep moving that we don’t take the time to assess our own state. During deadlines, I may not sleep as much because I’m working late, but instead of just moving on to the next thing and assuming lack of sleep (and the horrible feeling that comes with it) is part of the job; I take a moment to plan a day or even hour to do something that will help make me feel better. The same goes for when I hear traumatic stories at work. I take a moment and gage how I’m feeling and determine if I need a break.
Two. Learn your signs. It takes a while to realize how trauma affects you, but you should make it a point to learn you “tells.” For me, over-eating is a sure sign I’m not feeling like myself. So after I’ve scarfed down the fifth cookie, I may stop and think, “hmmm. this isn’t my normal self,” and figure out what/why something is bothering me and make time to schedule self-care. For others, it’s drinking too much; isolating yourself from friends; feeling constantly angry; or physical symptoms. Make it a point to know yourself so that you can address problems as early as possible.
Three. Opt for simple self-care and make it on-going. I have some go-to video clips that I watch whenever I need a pick me up. A few minutes later and I’m in a better mood—it can really be that simple. Another thing I do is try to limit things that I know will make me sad or anxious. This means I don’t watch scary movies or depressing documentaries that will make me feel more forlorn. It’s just not good for my mental health. I also try to include exercise and real food in my life as much as possible. Self-care doesn’t require a ton of pomp (unless that’s what you want!), but opting for simple choices makes it more likely that you’ll actually do it and that will help alleviate the side-effects of our work.
Today and all days, let’s remember that the work we do is important and that means we have to make sure we take care of our mind and body so that we can keep advocating zealously for as long as we can.