Childhood trauma sensitizes us and motivates us to help others but leaves us vulnerable to burnout.

vicarious trauma
Listening to horrifying stories, viewing horrifying images or attending traumatic incidents are traumatizing. They are also re-traumatizing if they bring back memories of our own traumatic experiences. The world feels less safe.

We internalize the stories and feelings of the people we are helping and imagine what it is like to be them. We become a little like them as a picture of them comes together inside us. Fragments of their stories, sensations and images diffuse into our memories and become our own.

Some clients try to shield their helpers from this. Others are practiced in distressing them. Either way, disturbing life histories and habits come to life in carers as they connect with the stories and their emotions.

Helpers and rights activists risk becoming distressed themselves. Being aware of the discomfort and regulating exposure is the antidote. Pretending to be OK digs the hole deeper.

crisis work
The world begins to feel unsafe to workers who only see others at their lowest point in crisis situations like child protection, crime, psychiatric emergency or critical incident debriefing. Many of these encounters are complex and traumatic.

People in conflict and crisis one week may be reconciled and back working and playing games the next. But helpers who day after day only see moments of extreme conflict and despair and don't see the healing or recovery eventually come to expect the worst everywhere. They are at risk of viewing all situations and people as hopeless and becoming less aware of the reality that recovery happens. They can become a danger to themselves and others.

Animal welfare activists and other witnesses of animal cruelty don't often have the relief of seeing any resolution to what they have witnessed .

After prolonged exposure to stressful situations our first sign of compassion fatigue may be irritation or feelings of hatred or dislike of the people we are helping or those who are harming them. Deriding them might provide some short term relief but puts off our own recovery.

These efforts to prevent feelings welling up and overwhelming us come from our own internal conflicts as well as the situations.

If these first signs are not addressed then alcoholism, drug abuse, nightmares, preoccupations, lack of sleep, episodes of rage or depression, disintegration of health or close relationships might be the next signs of burnout.

Organizations also burn out. Relationships between colleagues, clients and other agencies can start to mimic the same problems they are there to solve. Formal and informal structures and procedures can become diseased as an organization tries to cope with trauma. A name change, a new wardrobe or changes in seating arrangements, might help for a while but awareness is the only way out, otherwise death of old decayed organisations and birth of new ones might be a solution.

Helping others works on ones own suffering but also avoids facing it. Australian indigenous activists have recorded asking their white urban sisters not to come and help them in their struggle against oppression but to work together on the oppression they both experience.

Some causes seem endless and impossible. Without a schedule of goals even the thought of them can be overwhelming. I sometime suggest to activists that they examine their cause and their skill-set and the time they have available and then calculate the most effective and efficient actions they can complete within those limits.

Whatever you are good at - just do that. And just do that for no longer than the time available. If you don't look after yourself you will be useless to others.

In my experience helpers and activists don't burn out if they enjoy their role, are supported and debriefed and have clear, realizable and non-contradictory objectives.

Disturbing videos or photos could be watched far enough away on small screens to reduce their impact while still understanding the content but keeping exposure to the minimum necessary to achieve goals.

Debriefing during supervision brings feelings associated with disturbing events to awareness so they are less likely pop up and take us by surprise when a passing reminder sets them off.

Supportive relationships, debriefing and positive experiences of success and recovery help keep horrifying experiences in perspective so they are less able to run away and develop a life of their own in nightmares and subconscious fantasies. The awareness therapy pages show how this can work.

The relaxation and awareness exercises in the mind body and stress pages help maintain physical, mental and emotional well-being.