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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 1:51 am | Fair 45º


Alana Walczak: We Are All Experiencing Traumatic Stress – What You Can Do

I am tired. It has been an absolutely tragic week, and a horrible month. Like all of you, I have been glued to the local news and my Facebook feed for weeks now.

First, I was obsessively seeking out news of the fire. I worried about the well-being of friends and colleagues, monitored air-quality levels, juggled the physical and emotional needs of two very scared daughters, evacuated or helped others to evacuate, all while trying to continue to do as much work as possible. It was intense.

Then, just as firefighters heroically saved our beautiful community, and life was starting to get back to normal with the dawn of a New Year, we’ve been hit with unimaginably devastating mudslides and debris flows.

Again, I am glued to Facebook, press briefings and news stories. I’ve emailed and texted and called everyone I can think of who lives in Montecito. I’m hearing the harrowing stories on the news, and also directly from friends and colleagues.

And because we are a community of only “one degree of separation,” even though I haven’t been personally impacted, I know way too many people who are. I feel helpless. I’m tearful and heartbroken. I feel overwhelmed.

And, of course, my children are equally overwhelmed. They hear and feel my anxiety, sadness and worry. They feel it at school from friends and teachers. They carry it in their little bodies all day, every day.

And, I’m struggling, too. At times, I feel numb and at others, I feel agitated. I find myself distracted and unable to focus. And, although this may seem strange, I’ve felt uncomfortable feeling happy.

I notice that I almost feel guilty if I smile or laugh with a colleague. It feels wrong — disrespectful maybe — to enjoy the clear, blue skies and sunshine we’ve had these past few days.

It feels incongruous that when I wake up in downtown Santa Barbara, the sun is shining, there is no traffic, children are back in school, and I’m back at work.

My routine is back to normal, my family and immediate circle of friends are secure, and I am not in danger. So, why do I feel so fragile?

Because we are all suffering from secondary or vicarious trauma.  

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

At CALM, we concern ourselves with secondary trauma every day. Our counselors hear horrible stories, and it is incumbent upon us to think about how they care for themselves so they can continue to do their work.

We practice mindfulness, and encourage self-care in order to combat the insidious effects of secondary trauma. We must be whole and healthy before we can help others.

Right now, everyone in Santa Barbara County is experiencing some form of primary or secondary trauma. It’s an epidemic. Fortunately, there are some things we can do to help mitigate the effects of trauma.

I would like to share some valuable suggestions adapted from Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization for Helping Professionals who Work with Traumatized Clients.

It is important that we become aware of how the work we do or the news we watch or the stories we hear can impact us in profound ways.

Achieving and maintaining a sense of balance and connection in our lives can prevent us from experiencing secondary trauma or can help to mitigate its harmful effects. Here are several ways in which we can reduce the impact of secondary trauma:


» Acknowledge your own history of trauma and be aware it can affect how you respond to new traumas.
»  Inventory your current lifestyle choices and make necessary changes. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you exercising? Are you allowing yourself downtime?
» Take care of yourself. Create a self-care list and post it prominently in your home or office. This list may encourage you to be creative, get outside and appreciate the weather, take a weekend get-away, read a book, cook a meal, spend time with friends, or just have fun — however you define it.


» Give yourself permission to fully experience emotional reactions. Do not keep your emotions bottled up and don’t judge yourself for the range of feelings you feel. Let them come, and then let them go.
» Set realistic goals for yourself. Know your limits, accept them, and honor them.
» Seek out a new leisure activity or reconnect with one you enjoyed in the past.
» Recognize negative coping skills and avoid them. Substitute with the more positive coping skills included in your self-care list.


» Avoid isolation. Now is the time to talk to and connect with one another.
» Listen to feedback from colleagues, friends and family members. Ask a family member or close friend to check in on you.  
» Remember your spiritual side. A spiritual practice or a faith community can provide calm and connection.
» Strengthen support systems. Gather with friends over a potluck dinner. Find a meaningful way to volunteer. Seek out a mentor, or be a mentor to someone else.

We are all still coming to terms with what we have experienced over the past five weeks. There has been so much fear, anxiety and stress. And now, we are moving into disbelief, sadness and profound grief.

I believe our community will pull through this tragedy and come out stronger and more connected. We are resilient, and I encourage all of us to care for ourselves as we care for one another.

— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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