By Caitlin Bartnik, World Cares Center Volunteer
Working and volunteering in criminal justice and social work positions has made one constant abundantly clear. The men and women who work in these fields care. They care enough to work long hours, endure rude remarks, risk personal safety, and fight with every resource at their disposal to help others. I’ve seen it while working in Victim Advocacy, Domestic Violence Services, Mental Health, and currently in Community Corrections. I’ve had inspiring co-workers in each field who care about helping others and work hard to do so. The agencies I’ve worked with have included employees that serve as first responders when a disaster strikes as well as volunteer and intern personal working hard to care for their neighbors and those in their communities.
This caring often requires telling people who are in horrendously difficult situations what to do to best take care of themselves and their families. It necessitates compassionately listening to those in crisis and making a plan of action. Crisis comes with the job. It’s part of why these jobs and volunteer roles exist. We can’t eliminate crisis, but we can help, and we can mitigate damage. Despite the ability to comfort others in crisis, I’ve seen time and time again, that caretakers forget to help themselves. We spout out great self-care advice (maybe I’m biased, but I think it’s pretty great) then go home and ignore the advice we’ve been giving all day. Without self-care and paying attention to emotional resiliency, uncontrolled stress can lead to serious mental health consequences.
Why Does Too Much Stress Matter?
Exposure to traumatic events can cause depression, anxiety, secondary trauma, PTSD, burnout, and compassion fatigue. None of these mental health issues can be treated by ignoring them or “growing a pair” (a term I heard a lot while working with mostly men). There are a lot of resources for dealing with the stress of traumatic events (or secondary exposure to trauma), and I’ll include a few of my favorites at the end of this post. For resources to be useful, people need to recognize when it’s time to reach out for help. Then people need to reach out for help! It makes no sense to work in a helping field and praise clients for reaching out for help, then be afraid to do so ourselves. When it’s time to reach out for help looks different for everyone. Here’s what too much stress and secondary exposure to trauma looks like for me.
When I’m too stressed, my house is clean, and I’m a mess. I clean so I can point to everything and prove life is okay, but I stop taking the time to go to the gym, get my hair done, or schedule those pesky routine doctor’s exams that are supposed to happen once a year. I become incapable of concentration. When I’m managing my stress, I read books for hours. When I’m too stressed, my ability to concentrate deteriorates and I watch crappy TV while multi-tasking and seem unable to finish news articles. My least favorite personal habit of being too stressed is how easy it becomes to take my stress out on other people. Suddenly my clients’ problems are annoying. Getting asked about my day is triggering. Everything feels more frustrating than normal. Whenever I get to this point, and it’s happened due to cumulative stress and single incidents that gnaw at my conscience, I’ve learned it’s time to re-evaluate where I’m putting myself on my priority list and implement change.
It’s easy to feel guilty needing help or prioritizing your happiness because people cope with worse than just seeing everyone else’s trauma. At those times, it helps to remember that I’m a better helper/friend/family member/and loved one when I’m taking care of myself. No one can do the self-love work for you. The way my life looks too stressed may vary dramatically from someone else’s. There are a few symptoms of too much stress to watch for that are pretty common in many people.
Signs You Need to Address Your Stress
Here are some signs you can look for in your life that indicate you might need a bit of self-love:
- Dependent use of alcohol or drugs
- Constant stomach pains
- Difficulty sleeping
- Inability to stop thinking about a single incident/situation
- Frequently feeling hyper or agitated
- Frequent crying
- Drastic change in religious beliefs
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Change in appetite
- Feeling angry or becoming angry without cause
- Loss of energy
- Engaging in risky behaviors
Don’t Stress About Your Stress
If too many items on that list look familiar, consider trying to make some life adjustments to handle stress better. The good news is, handling stress is possible! To get started, check out last week’s World Cares Center blog post, What is your emotional resiliency plan, for an explanation of emotional resiliency and some suggestions to improve yours! World Cares Center fills a very important gap in services by making resiliency training (and many other trainings) available to everyone. Volunteers often lack access to follow up resources after assisting in a disaster. Diverse training can prepare volunteers and employees alike for the mental, physical, and emotional demands of work in a disaster or crisis situation. Learning about resiliency and mental health has been shown to make a difference in the ability to cope with stress. Resiliency is like a muscle; you can make it stronger!
Need some help right now? Check out this amazing article by Annie Wright on The Mighty for 101 Self-Care Suggestions for When It All Feels Like Too Much. Sometimes you just need a baby step that you can accomplish today. To invest in longer term solutions, find your perfect relaxation technique. I swear by the adult coloring book trend but can’t make meditation feel calming. Thankfully there are plenty of options for relaxation; Greatist.com outlines 40 you can try in 5 minutes! I highly recommend taking the time to list your favorite personal copings skills, this worksheet makes it fun and easy to do and is free to download and print thanks to Indigo Daya.
I have amazing friends and family who have put up with my bringing work stress home, and given me a nudge when I get too consistently cranky, but I’ve also seen the stress of criminal justice and social work careers tear apart the families of coworkers. Please take care of yourself and encourage your coworkers to recognize healthy self-care.
Share and Comment your stories of coping with stress.
World Cares Center’s mission is to empower communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters through training, support, and coordination. To learn more about trainings and other events please visit the World Cares Center’s website.