by SETH EISENBERG
The BBC World Service reported this week on new approaches to help Western aid workers look after themselves.
“Aside from the emotional toll on the families of victims, aid workers are increasingly being reminded to look out for their own needs too,” Claudia Hammond reported from London.
Dr. Sarah Davidson, Deputy Clinical Director of the University of East London’s School of Psychology, talked with Hammond about the importance of helping those who serve victims and their families take care of themselves.
“It’s through our own self-awareness of how to look after ourselves that we are better informed about how to look after others,” Dr. Davidson said. “People adopt difficult habits, long working hours and burn out. It’s as important to look after oneself as it is to look after the people you are responding to.”
I’ve had many opportunities to appreciate Dr. Davidson’s advice and learn similar lessons over the past five years working with Jewish, Christian and Muslim victims of war and terrorism in Israel, training more than 1,000 behavioral health specialists, educators and clergy in the U.S., and teaching marriage education and relationship skills training classes to thousands of diverse couples and singles, including many of the brink of separation or divorce.
Like many of the professionals I’ve trained, I’ve seen time and again the impact of repeated exposure to stressful, often traumatic experiences, of the people we serve. I’ve also regularly seen the deep sense of relief, connection and intimacy that emerges when people who have experienced trauma directly or vicariously are able to talk with loved ones about their feelings.
Sadly, for many Soldiers, veterans, clergy, counselors, journalists, aid workers, medical professionals, and other frontline responders who have been exposed to traumatic events without the skills and opportunity to confide and release feelings connected to their experiences, the impact often shows up through substance abuse, domestic violence, withdrawal, and a range of destructive behaviors directed towards themselves and others that lead to increased isolation, marital and family breakdown.
Regardless of gender, ethnicity, faith, age, education, and profession, what consistently stands out is the importance of helping family members and other loved ones learn to listen with empathy without judging, inflicting advice (no matter how well-intentioned), or asking uninvited questions of those who have bottled up stressful, negative emotions. Teaching family members to be good listeners for loved ones who have experienced trauma has repeatedly shown itself to be healing and relieving for the speaker and opening a pathway to begin thinking more clearly about their own hopes and aspirations for the future. Exercises such as Talking Tips and Emptying the Emotional Jug are often as helpful for professionals in certification trainings as those who participate in future classes and counseling sessions.
In 2009, Dr. Davidson created an innovative distance-learning program at the University of East London to help English-speaking aid workers learn skills and concepts to help them better care for themselves and the people they serve. While such extensive professional training certainly offers many valuable benefits, the first step to helping a loved one begin to relieve feelings connected to traumatic events often begins with simply learning to be a good listener.
For families who have seen the impact of trauma on loved ones, directly or indirectly, learning to make it safe for them to safely confide their feelings can make a lasting difference.
Seth Eisenberg is President and CEO of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in marriage and relationship education.