"Feeling heavy"

Vicarious trauma and other issues facing those who work in the sexual assault field
ACSSA Wrap No. 4 – September 2007

Self-care strategies for the individual

Research has documented the activities and routines in which professionals in the field engage to offset the negative aspects of working with trauma victim/survivors. 'Self-care' refers to proactive strategies or routines that professionals use to offset the negative aspects of working with trauma victims and to promote their own wellbeing. Self-care is distinguished from 'coping', which is said to refer to reactions that may or may not be chosen consciously: 'the notion of self care is predicated on the assumption that working with trauma victims can be emotionally strenuous for service providers' (Wasco & Campbell, 2002, p. 734).

One research study (Wasco & Campbell, 2002) found that counsellor advocates used five types of self-care resources in dealing with their work:

  • changing how they think about things (cognitive);
  • using body and senses (physical);
  • relying on their religious beliefs or spirituality (spiritual);
  • using friends, family or creative recreational activities as outlets (social/recreational); and
  • putting into words the painful details and intense feelings that they experience (verbal).

It was found that when counsellor advocates practise proactive self-care strategies, two functions are served:

  • regulating the amount of work-related or rape-related stress that rape victim counsellor advocates experience (cathartic strategies); and
  • developing skills, strengths and support to compensate for the daily exposure to traumatic experiences (integrative strategies).

Examples of specific self-care strategies cited in various other literature are:

  • socio-political involvement - working to address the broader social causes of sexual assault, which has been found to enable people to positively channel their knowledge and feelings of 'anger and powerlessness' regarding violence against women and inadequate systems responses (Iliffe & Steed, 2000);
  • having and maintaining interests completely separate from work; for example, during interviews in one study on vicarious traumatisation, many workers were as passionate about their outside interests as their paid work, which was seen as allowing them to separate themselves from the work and the stresses they encountered there (Brescher, 2004);
  • taking breaks at work, and from work, when needed;
  • taking up opportunities for debriefing and other therapeutic support;
  • maintaining professional connections;
  • maintaining connections with others outside the field;
  • accepting support and positive feedback when it is offered;
  • giving support and positive feedback to others;
  • treating themselves particularly well, consciously focusing on their own self-care;
  • physical activity and other bodily self-care (for example, seeking treatment for any illness);
  • spiritual engagement;
  • humour; and
  • identifying successes, reminding themselves of successes.