Written by Christian Swan on March 16, 2017
I still remember my exact location and can nearly return to the sensations I felt in my body the moment I got the text message. I remember reading the words, "active shooter," from my husband who was in his office on that sunny day in June. While my husband returned home safely that evening, there is no arguing that he suffered a major traumatic incident.
In the days and weeks that followed, my husband and I received an overwhelming amount of support. Our phones were overloaded with text messages and calls from loved ones, and we even received a few free meals. I was very thankful for the community we had at the time, and yet noticed a common thread in all of the support we were receiving. "How is your husband? Is he doing better?" people would ask me. I would answer their questions, and they felt relieved to hear that my husband was healing well. However, I was still suffering, and I struggled to advocate for the support I needed at the time.
As the loved one of a survivor of trauma, I also became a survivor of secondary/vicarious trauma. Secondary trauma occurs as a result of secondary exposure to traumatic content. When our loved ones are impacted by trauma, we want to listen to their story and help in any way possible. And yet, it is too easily to overlook the effects their stories have on our own bodies. These effects can manifest themselves in various ways, from sleep disturbance to irritability to excessive fear and worry.
Do you have a loved one who recently survived a traumatic event? Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed and excessively tired as you seek to provide care. You may also find yourself struggling to find meaningful ways to support your loved one. Below are some ways that you can support yourself during this time:
1.) Honor your experience as a secondary survivor of trauma. Often, secondary survivors feel guilty when they become overwhelmed by their loved one's story. It is too easy to say, "I need to stop feeling badly because the trauma didn't happen directly to me." Instead, consider the effects that these stories are having on your body and take time to name your own traumatic experiencing.
2.) Seek activities that nourish you. Some ideas may be getting outside, practicing yoga or meditation, going to a concert, calling a close friend, or taking a nap. What activities help you feel refreshed? Pursue them.
3.) Consider professional counseling. Taking time to focus on your own experience will not only help you to heal but will also give you more freedom to care for your loved one.
Practicing this DBT Skill can help us stay grounded and connected this holiday season! Mindfulness is a skill that, when practiced regularly, is a great tool to reduce stress, connect with our personal goals and create genuine connection with others. The holidays can be rich in memory, sentiment and relationship. They can also be full of family expectations, grief and reminders of trauma. These, and many more experiences, can overwhelm, cause us to disregard our own needs, and flood us with many different emotions. In order to enjoy the positive aspects of the holiday and skillfully navigate the challenges, try practicing mindfulness throughout your holiday season!
Mindfulness has three components:
Mindfulness as Stress-Reduction
For many, the holiday season means a busy schedule and many more tasks and to-dos than normal. Practicing mindfulness in the midst of the whirlwind helps to produce moments of calm to catch our breath and remember our priorities. Mindfulness also helps us evaluate where our time and energy are going and make the most intentional decisions for ourselves in this season.
Mindfulness as Social Support
Paying attention to the present moment, without judgement can give us a lot of important information about what is happening in a room, or in a conversation. In the midst of a holiday gathering, take a moment to simply observe what is happening inside and outside of yourself. Allow yourself the gift of a few deeper breaths. Notice who is talking with who, and what those dynamics are like. Notice what is happening inside yourself as you connect with different people. Hold this information lightly and without judgement, and allow this information to guide your interactions.
Mindfulness to support Intentional Decisions
If you find yourself navigating a lot of spoken and/or unspoken expectations over the holidays, mindfulness skills can help you identify your needs and desires and to stay connected to them throughout the season. Spend some intentional moments noticing where you would like your time and energy to go this season, what would make it memorable and special for you and yours. Notice how other’s expectations are making you feel, especially if those expectations cause you to disregard your own needs and desires. Give yourself the gift of staying connected to yourself and your values, which becomes a much more congruent and grounded holiday experience.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers a set of skills to help with many different emotional and relational difficulties. The four pillars of DBT are Mindfulness, Emotion Regulation, Interpersonal Effectiveness and Distress Tolerance. Each of these pillars offers a number of skills to practice in that area. I have selected three DBT skills that I believe can make a significant difference for those managing depression.
Depression is an experience that includes a slow-down or freeze response in the nervous system. People managing depression may feel numb, detached, hopeless and sad. These internal experiences may cause them to isolate from relationships, get stuck in their difficult emotions, struggle to complete normal activities. Often, those managing depression feel misunderstood by the people in their life, especially when they are encouraged to “think positively” and “just get over it.” In fact, people managing depression are often expending enormous effort to engage in their life in the most simple ways. The following set of DBT skills can be used together or individually to improve depression symptoms and help catalyze healing and forward movement.
1.Emotion Regulation Skill: Opposite Action
When we are using Emotional Regulation skills, we are paying attention to whether or not our emotions fit the situation we are in. Opposite Action is a skill that we reach for when we have determined that our emotions DO NOT fit the facts of the situation. This is often the case with depression. Depression is like a lens that makes life look harder and sadder than it actually is.
All emotions have an action urge, an instinctual action that the emotion makes us want to do. When our emotions DO NOT fit the situation, we benefit from acting opposite to the action urge. Here are some common emotions experienced in depression and suggestions for opposite action.
2.Interpersonal Effectiveness Skill: Making Requests
Making Requests is a relationship skill that is very closely related to making boundaries. Requests highlight what we need from another person. While they can be vulnerable to make, they are also vital to communicating our needs with others. Loved ones are not mind-readers and need invitations and instructions to know how to care for those managing depression.
People experiencing depression are almost always misunderstood by the people who care for them most. Unless they have experienced depression themselves, loved ones will likely minimize the depressed experience. From the outside, it may appear that it would only take a few simple steps to recover from depression. If only that were true.
In order to stay connected with loved ones and to receive the care they absolutely need, those managing depression need to lean into this skill of making requests. They need to speak about how they are feeling and the effort they are expending to engage with their lives. They need to ask their loved ones to be patient with them, to use encouraging language, to offer comfort and presence rather than solutions.
3.Distress Tolerance Skill: Radical Acceptance
We reach for distress tolerance skills when we are going through circumstances that are too big and/or too hard for us to change. Depression often comes on the tails of a big and hard life event, such as the loss of a loved one, a difficult transition, a painful event or unmovable circumstances. When there is truly nothing we can do to change our circumstances, we need to shift our focus toward acceptance.
We are using radical acceptance skills when we work to create openness and willingness toward our difficult circumstances. Willingness is a powerful mindset shift and means that we will stop fighting against what is inevitable. Endlessly fighting against unfavorable circumstances is a recipe for suffering. Pain is inevitable in our lives, but suffering is a choice. We can still live meaningful lives in the midst of painful circumstances. When we give up the fight, we are more able to find acceptance. . . and peace.