Helping doctors deal with trauma

Today is ‘National Doctors’ Day’, a day for celebrating all the amazing and hard-working doctors out there. Doctors belong to a powerful demographic of people who dedicate their work to helping others: medical professionals, therapists, first-responders, etc. As a result of their positions, these people are exposed to trauma on a regular basis. But what happens when the constant exposure to the trauma of others, starts to take a toll on them personally?

This type of response to trauma is known as secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma, where professionals may develop symptoms as an indirect response to their client or patient’s suffering.

Research has shown that nearly 87 per cent of emergency response personnel have reported symptoms after exposure to highly distressing events, and up to 90 per cent of caregivers say their family life has suffered as a result of their work.

“In medical school and nursing school, we’re not taught well at all how to deal with the difficult and sad things that we see,” says Kristen Choi, a nurse and trauma researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We’re really socialized to just shove it down, to not talk about it and to not be vulnerable.” [NPR]

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can look similar to that of PTSD and can be just as detrimental to caregivers and professionals. So how can doctors and health professionals protect themselves?

“Compassion and boundaries are necessary for self-love and self-care. Being present to suffering but not being engulfed by suffering requires mindfulness and detachment from the client’s suffering. This skill requires practice. Science reveals that people who practice mindfulness have brains that are able to hold space for suffering without simultaneously traumatizing themselves.” — Kim Barthel

While this might seem easier said than done, Kim says this notion takes practice and mindfulness. Here are two very simple ways to check in with yourself when you start to notice yourself responding to others’ trauma:

  • Take a break: give yourself permission to pause or take a short break. This can be as simple as stopping what you’re doing and feeling your body, slowing down and taking deep breaths. This helps you to regulate your level of stress. You will also be leading by example for your client too, showing self-care is beneficial for both of you.
  • Reconnect: it is common for caregivers to dissociate, so in staying connected or reconnecting to the current situation, you are allowing yourself to be present, for yourself and your client. Reconnect both to your own identity but also your physical presence.

Many people have also cited Conversations with a Rattlesnake, the book by Kim Barthel and Theo Fleury, as a great resource for their work, like this nurse:

I work as a nurse with an addiction program in a small town in Nova Scotia. Read [this] book in the spring and often lend it to clients. It always gets returned, sometimes with notes written on the cover from clients, families and friends. It gives hope and opens some doors that were locked up. — Marion Banks

If you’re interested in having Kim and Theo come to speak to your organization or group, you can find more information here.


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