I read an article today detailing the negative effects of secondary stress on child protective service workers. Of course the information came as no surprise to me, having lived that life for over two decades. I did feel gratified, however, that research bears out what we already knew: dealing with trauma day in and day out causes negative affects on every practitioner who works with traumatized clients. My deepest hope, however, remains that, knowing about the health issues, emotional pain and other side effects of secondary trauma, the real discussion for change will begin. States should re-examine how social workers are treated: high caseloads, unrealistic hours and public blame and shame. Child welfare reform should begin as a collaborative effort with experienced Social Workers at the table.
Yes, the negative impact of dealing with children who were victims of trauma is very real. The high turn over rate in the social work profession is an indicator of the need for more support and encouragement for this community.
One very common expression of secondary trauma among social workers is insomnia. We laugh it off to each other and post cute insomnia memes at 2am. But, the laughter is hollow.
Many social workers report problems sleeping. They complain that they cant shut the “noise” in their heads as so many thoughts spill out of a brain that cannot rest. I have heard the advice from those who dont carry the burdens of others to “just shut it off when you go home”. But, then, wouldn’t it be nice if you could? The deep committment and empathy that drives a person to work with abused children is the very thing that doesnt shut down after 5pm.
It’s an interesting process, really. When I have insomnia it goes like this…
I know Im tired. I can feel the heaviness in my eyes, the slowing of my breath, the brief flashes when consciousness fades and I realize I missed a few seconds of the show I had been watching. So, I prepare for bed. As I shower, brush my teeth, lather on lotion, my body sends signals to my brain…”I am sleepy!”
Tucked in beneath my soft comforter, I finally close my weary eyes…
My brain cries out. “Did you approve the purchase order on the gadnt children?
As if given a shot of adrenaline, my eyes pop open. Then, starting softly and building to crescendo comes all of the racing thoughts and ideas to invade my mind…screaming with their soundless urgency.
No, I am not having auditory hallucinations…The “noise” is not audible, but just as intent on grabbing my attention. Sometimes, my intrusive thoughts can rob me of sleep just as effectively as a blaring trumpet. And the more I allow these thoughts into my conscious mind, the further I travel down the rabbit hole away from peaceful sleep. My brain seems to think I have to tie up every lose end before I can rest.
Have you experienced that kind of insomnia? It is so frustrating! You know you are doing it to yourself, but you can’t seem to stop. Each thought has merit. How can you shut them off?
I wish there was a way to switch off my brain when it hits the pillow. Going from luminescent and functional to dark and void. Just for the next 8 hours. But we all know that brains dont work that way. Much of the emotional healing we experience every day comes through sleep and dreams. But insomnia is not healing. It is stressful and maddening.
How do we deal with Insomnia born from “noise?” (Intrusive thoughts).
Some take prescription sleeping pills. I do not.
Some people take a warm, lavender scented bath before bed and meditate.
What works for some doesnt work for all.
Here is what I do. Maybe it will help you.
I try to create a sleep routine that repeats every night: a signal to my body that it is time to wind down and rest.
1. A hot shower steams away tension and helps my body to relax.
2. I drink hot herbal tea: Tension Tamer, Chamomile or Sleepy Time are good choices.
3. I set soft music on a 60 minute sleep timer. Pandora deep sleep music or soft piano music tend to pave my way to slumber.
4. I thank God for 3 people or events for which I am grateful.
5. I play one game of electronic solitaire. (Sometimes I dont make it through to the end).
There is no magic here. You can pick your own routine, but make it the same every night.
Even with the routine, I have at least one insomniac night each week. One way I have found to combat the intrusive thoughts on those nights, is to place a pad and pen next to the bed.
When a thought about what I need to do the following day hits me…I put it on a “to do” list which lessens the urgency. When a piece of unprocessed information threatens to wake me, I also write it down on the “to do” list with a promise to my brain that I will follow up the next day..
Focusing your mind consciously away from “the noise” also helps. I make a mind picture of myself rowing across a large lake. The repetitious action helps to block out the worries trying to weasel into my consciousness. I try to hear the sound of the oars slapping against the placid water. I concentrate to smell the freshly cut grass and to marvel at the starry night. This technique often helps me to block out the thoughts and helps to relax my mind.
Choosing to be a Social worker or a therapist or anyone else who works regularly with victims is a tough choice. We need to continue to speak out for more support around Secondary Trauma. But until there is real change, your emotional and physical health is up to you. But you are not alone. Reach out to other social workers. Form a support group. Encourage each other every chance you get. As long as we care deeply about serving others, we will have to live with the noise. But, by reaching out and holding on to that support, you can learn and implement ways to get the sweet rest you need and deserve.