A Holistic Response to Secondary Trauma

Holistic - Trauma - Embodiment - Jeanette - White

All this month we’re exploring holistic care for our bodies in the midst of trauma and pain. Here, Jeanette White, Director of Programs & Product Development, shares about an experience of secondary trauma that evoked her own lived reality. Jeanette describes the bodily effects of holding trauma and how she was eventually able to listen to and care for her body. To hear more about holistic care from Jeanette, you can revisit our podcast series about Grief, Emotions, and Essential Oils.

I tried desperately to protect myself by turning off the news before the interview came on, but I couldn’t reach the volume controls in time. I was too late. I heard him. The grandfather of two young children who were tragically lost in a wildfire was being interviewed in the height of his own trauma, recounting the final words he had with his 5-year-old grandson by phone while he was helplessly unable to come to their aid. The image of what transpired was instantly seared into my mind, and I was suddenly overcome with emotion, struggling to breathe, focusing hard to stay on the road while driving, fighting back complete overwhelm about the suffering.

I think most of us hear some form of difficult or tragic news nearly every day. It’s the reality of our world, and to be aware of what is happening around us often requires listening to heartbreaking stories. Most of the time we are able to hold the grief for a bit and then put it away somewhere, into that corner of our minds where we put the tragic but distant things that we cannot control.

But something about this story I could not let go. Envisioning details of the scene haunted me as I continued driving home. I walked into my front door in a daze, and fought back tears as I quietly explained to my husband what had happened while my own precious 3-year-old son played innocent and unaware with his cars and trucks nearby. The scene continued to pop up in my mind throughout the evening, and I could feel my body shift into a state of escalating panic each time. It took much effort to tamp it down and distract myself to move on. The next day I was still finding the scene triggering me, and I knew more was at play than simply hearing something tragic that needed a bit of time to work its way through my tenderized heart.

I could easily name there was a level of vicarious trauma impacting me. When exposed to vivid and disturbing images or raw and resonant details of stories second-hand, vicarious trauma is inevitable to some degree. Whether it’s a painful news story, a friend sharing details about a traumatic experience, or working in a profession where you are exposed to difficult stories, we are all indirectly impacted by the reality of another person’s suffering.

We are all indirectly impacted by the reality of another person’s suffering.

But what else was underneath my intense response? Looking beyond the fact that it was truly a disturbing story of loss, I can recognize it as a window into deeper places of my own personal fears. Fear of being powerless and at the mercy of something terrible I can’t control. Fear of being blindsided by more death, after experiencing much loss in recent years. Fear of losing my son, after fighting through six years of infertility and miscarriages to finally hold him in my arms. Not to mention I have become incredibly tenderized to any form of harm to children since my son was born. Whether it’s a fictional TV show or a true story, I can’t help but put myself in the shoes of the parents or imagine if it were my own child, and anguish rises up instantly.

Several weeks before hearing this painful news story, we had been vacationing in Yosemite and suddenly found ourselves evacuated from our lodging due to a fast-growing wildfire that had sparked overnight just a few miles from our cabin. The giant plume of smoke mushrooming into the sky, heavy ash in the air, and a feeling of risk to our own safety was just around the bend in a very literal way. Shortly after that occurred I started Googling emergency survival kits and began to stockpile supplies, and even purchased a personal safety alarm for my keychain. Clearly I was in a state of feeling quite vulnerable.

And then the news story hit. Put the puzzle pieces together and you could say I was well primed to be deeply impacted by this tragedy.

After two days of remaining very triggered and replaying the story repeatedly in my mind, I knew it was time for an intervention. The thing about traumatic events, in whatever form they occur, is that the normal processing of our memory gets disrupted. Instead of your brain being able to file the experience away into the appropriate place, the emotion associated with the experience gets stuck in your limbic system, which is your emotional control center. This includes the amygdala, which triggers our fight/flight/freeze survival response. If a traumatic memory is trapped there, whenever we think about the event our brain reacts as if we are reliving it right then and there—as if it’s happening right now. That is exactly how I felt. I needed help.

I shared a little bit with others about what was going on for me, but it was hard to talk about it because I didn’t want to share the heartbreaking details of the story with them and cause further secondary trauma, and referencing it in any way triggered me so strongly each time. So as a certified practitioner of the Aroma Freedom Technique, which uses essential oils alongside a protocol that gently reduces the lingering emotional charge of stressful memories, I did what I knew to do: I got out my oils and walked myself through the process to release the hold this traumatic experience had on my limbic system. With each passing round of the protocol I could feel the reaction begin to subside and felt rest slowly return to my body. On the scale of 1 to 10 for how emotionally triggered I felt when recalling what happened, I went from a maxed out 10 down to a 2 by the end.

It’s now been many weeks since I went through this experience, and thinking about the story still certainly brings sadness. But I have been released from the intense mental looping and crippling emotional charge that was so debilitating to my mind and heart. I am now more free to attend gently to what this experience revealed: a heart still tender with the intersection of trauma, loss, and fear in my own life. And I am more aware than ever that tending to our whole selves—body, mind, and spirit—is essential if we hope to live and thrive in a world full of so much heartache.