Today, in Alabama, we brace for what the Weather Channel called a Particularly Dangerous System, scheduled to bring storms all day ( one building upon the other) which will include: hail, high winds, and long track tornados.
I’ve been keeping the Weather Channel running in the background while I completed laundry, worked on my novel, cleaned my kitchen and all those things you should do while waiting for impending doom. Occassionally I became amused at the level of excitement emanating from the meteorologists who (If they were honest) must live for weather like this. On days like today, they become the most watched entertainers on television, breaking down , ad nauseum, the steps for preparation against severe weather.
It’s not that I didn’t take the threat seriously. Trust me, I have lived through a direct tornado hit on my home. And it was the most terrifying thing I have survived. I just realized that I have absolutely no control over the weather. I turned on my weather-radio and packed a go-bag in case I needed to flee to the basement. Other than that, I decided not to sit around and worry, but to continue with my day as normal.
Particularly annoying, however, was when the television picture and sound froze. If I had been hanging on every word of the storm expert, I would have been missing vital information related to my personal safety. Instead, a pop up message appeared on my television.
“Your sattelite signal has been lost. “
Yep. Yep. Yep. Despite the need for up-to-date information on the pending tornado threat; heavy rains (which, incidentally frequently accompany these storms) had knocked out the satellite signal. It was not surprising, as it happened every time there is a fierce rain or wind event. However, I found myself extremly irritated and nostalgic for the days when I had cable television instead of satellite. My signal never failed me when I had cable. I would still have cable today had I not moved to an area that did not have cable access. And on days like today, I really missed it.
What is the difference between cable and satellite? It’s all in the way that the signal is received and transmitted. At my house, the satelite, perched on my roof, was set up to receive information from electromagnetic rays. During a heavy rainstorm, the raindrops can weaken or absorb the signal. Rain can also cause signal scattering as the electromagnetic waves refract and diffract around raindrops on the surface of the dish. Cable operates differently as radio frequency (RF) signals transmitted through coaxial cables, or in more recent systems, light pulses through fiber-optic cables, travel to your home and provide the television coverage. (Can you tell I actually researched this?) In homes where the cable is laid underground, the likelihood of storm disruption is minimal.
Now to the real question. What does any of this have to do with Social Work?
In social work, therapy, counseling and other helping professions, you work with a population in crisis. Working with the trauma of others is often like being caught in a fierce storm. By empathizing and connecting with the families you serve, social workers tend to absorb some of the trauma like the cast-off drops of a shaken umbrella. Trauma transference isn’t a one-time or occassional thing, like a spring pop-up shower. The transferred trauma or “secondary trauma” , had the potential to build up with every new experience. Day after day, therapists, social workers, and counselors listen to the trauma of their clients, working with them to develop interventions for change.
In articles, lectures, books and websites, warnings abound of potential emotional flood warning. So much has been written about the dangers of secondary post traumatc stress (SPTS), as well as practical steps you can learn and implement to stave off or at least ease the damage caused by SPTS . But unless you are in tune with your own mind/body and stress indicators, you may not reach for or implement these steps in time. You could experience a direct hit, causing damage that may not be easily ameliorated.
In other words: as with any type of predicted disaster, knowledge and experience makes a big difference in how you respond to such events. . But how you stay in tune with yourself makes all the difference in your storm preparedness.
If you receive signals like a satellite, you have heard all the lectures, read the articles and are pretty confident of your ability to handle STSD. However, you haven’t given yourself the attention needed to become aware of your stress responses and may not even be aware when your body is reacting to stress overload. You function well in the daily stress arena. But when confronted with extroidinary stress: a severe child injury or death, multiple high stress deadlines or even a crushing caseload, the ability to receive the signals from your body/mind become scattered and freeze. You become closed off to the signals of others who may be trying to help or to provide you with a life-line. Before you know it, your “house” collapses under the weight of STDS.
If , however, like a cable, your input reciever is buried deeply, the signals are not so easily interrupted. Not only are you aware of STDS, and your succesptibility to the storms coming your way, but you are also in-tune with your body/mind/emotions. You can get the signals when stress and secondary trauma are taking the toll. By receiving those signals early in the storm, you are able to reach out for help or practice the self-care techniquest you have learned along the way.
Much like the weather headed my way, Secondary Traumatic Stress is headed your way and for most of you is already upon you. Learn your body’s stress signals. Pay attention to them: are you sleeping less? Are you eating more, not out of hunger, but out of emotion? Are you distant from those you love? There are so many individual ways that we respond to stress. That’s why it’s so important that you tune in to yours. When you feel that big storm coming, reach out to someone: a colleague, a supervisor or a mentor. Let them help you through this time so you can come out of the storm intact and ready to face the next day.