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Moving Towards Suffering and Staying Resilient - part 1
Photo by Breeze Baldwin
by
Dr. Don Bosch
on
July 27, 2018
|

People who serve the homeless population are much like the humanitarian aid workers with whom I have worked for over a decade.  While many people avoid situations of discomfort or pain, homeless shelter and humanitarian staff move toward human suffering and need.  I can understand why many people shy away.  We are afraid of what we don't understand or of unpredictable responses from individuals in bad circumstances.  Our brains are wired this way to ensure our own survival.  Not many people are willing to risk their own wellbeing to help refugees in Syria or an unkempt homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk.  Those of you who are reading these words belong to a unique group of human beings who seem to ignore their own wellbeing in order to help others.  For many of us, this is in response to deeply held values, a sense of higher purpose, or a responsibility to make the world a better place.  From my experience all hands are welcome as the need is great, whether here at home or in countless areas around the globe.  Yet it is precisely this calling or sense of purpose that can put us at even greater risk than we need be.  This is not the risk of violence from another, but rather the risk of neglect of ourselves.  Let me explain.

Some years ago, my colleague and friend, Dr. Laurie Pearlman, coined the phrase ‘vicarious trauma’.  It refers to the trauma that can silently yet surely affect those who care for others in significant distress or danger.  Brain research has since given supporting evidence for this condition with the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ that act like a tuning fork, resonating with the pain of others and resulting in the release of stress hormones in our body. The stress response triggered by vicarious trauma is the same response triggered when we ourselves are experiencing some threat or difficult situation. We don't notice it, though, since we are helping others whose need is much greater than our own.  For aid workers, racing against the clock to save dying children, their own discomfort, lack of sleep or poor diet are simply not felt to be important.  Likewise, those of you who work with the homeless often discount your own discomfort and safety as the cost of living out your values.  We are called to be down in the trenches, rolling up our sleeves and digging deep for a second wind.  At least you get to go home at some point and sleep in a bed rather than on cardboard.  How can you possibly complain?  Yet, the stress hormones are circulating, silently damaging the very body and mind given us to answer the call to serve.

In my experience, this mindset has also become embedded in our aid organizations, shelters, and other nonprofits, where “doubling down” is viewed as a requirement of your calling.  I understand that many aid organizations and shelters feel the pressure of meeting donor expectations and providing for endless client needs.  But too often staff are seen as expendable assets that can be readily replaced when they are worn out. For both personal and organizational reasons then the neglect of ourselves is a significant problem that is taking a toll on those called to serve.  To understand the impact of this we need to delve deeper into the workings of the brain under stress. Click here for part 2

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