Dealing with the Trauma of Helping Those With Trauma


The Hormones of Stress

Those of us who regularly work with people that have been traumatized often don’t realize we share in that trauma too. Unless we are very astute and have honest and caring supports in our lives, we also run the risk of suffering the negative aspects of trauma.

Secondary Trauma (or Vicarious Trauma) can affect our relationships, work life, outlook, diminish our joy and/or turn us cynical, even leading to depression.

The stress of dealing with others’ trauma on a repeated basis can be negative (distress) or positive (eustress). A lot depends on how effective we perceive we are in our work.

The long-term effects of distress on our systems (constant and sustained release of the hormone, cortisol), can affect our weight, heart, brain, immunity, even our joints and ability to heal. 

Eustress is still stress but it releases endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin rather than cortisol. Eustress doesn’t necessarily lead to euphoria, but more of a calm, confidence we take with us in most of our encounters and relationships.

Releasing oxytocin instead of cortisol can lead to a sense of trust and openness instead of hyperarousal responses; fight, flight or freeze.

In my work with educators, I encourage them to start each class with an “Oxytocer” a specific exercise designed to release oxytocin in students and create an environment of trust. There are exercises one can do to release oxytocin and habits one can grow to lower the long-term effects of distress on one’s life.

Diet and Exercise

First let’s look at some dietary practices that help lower cortisol in your system. Hydration is a key, keep sipping that water (and ask for an office nearer the bathroom). Also, eat plenty of complex carbohydrates; peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Co-workers might frequent the desks of others who keep candies in a bowl, but they’ll visit you for other reasons such as your sunny disposition (and the fact that your office is nearer the bathroom).

Now let’s look at activities that can build eustress in your life.

Exercise, but don’t think just in terms of a daily distance run or bike ride. That’s great for aerobics and it is true that the hormones released will remain in your blood stream for hours. But your brain can also be stimulated by simply taking a brisk walk every hour. I don’t always have time for a lengthy exercise session and it must entertain my neighbors as I look for unique ways to circle the block when my smart watch reminds me hourly to “take a hike.”

Intentional Play

Play is a very effective means of creating eustress and before you let the Type-A bully in your brain tell you that you don’t have time for play, understand that it playing is one of the times your mind is most creative. If having a scientific term for play helps you justify it, psychologists often refer to play as “Transient Autotelic Experiences.” A simpler word for it, but still official sounding is “flow.” I’ll leave it to your discretion if you’re going to tell your supervisor you need to play, flow or have a transient autotelic experience.

During flow, you lose a sense of time and a sense of self-consciousness. Cognitively, if you’ve been working on a hard problem or learning a new skill and you take a play break, it allows the information you’ve been consuming to go to multiple centers of your brain and enables you to think creatively.

Educators would be wise to apply this. If we want our children to think creatively, it is best to schedule classes before play time so the brain can do its optimal creative work. Jean Piaget stated that “Play is the work of children,” I believe that adolescents and many adults play through conversation which is why many of the world’s top companies are moving towards more open campuses with large relaxing areas for conversations between peers from multiple working areas. The “silo-thinking” resulting from the “silo-workspaces” in many industrial aged organizations, leads to a closed mindset that is detrimental to the flourishing of any business in an environment of continual change.

Although it’s hard to imagine many bureaucratic leaders celebrating that play is productive and creative work, it actually stifles creativity to not make workspaces that match the atmospheres most businesses are seeking (creativity, mental well-being and teamwork). After all, even Snow White knew that in order to keep the seven dwarves happy they had to sing on the way to work.


Investing time to focus your brain in the moment is never a waste. We conjure up most of our stress from the past or project it into the future. In our culture of social media and constant advertising, it is increasingly hard to live in the moment. A close friend of mine who has experienced a lot of trauma in her life and been a support to many others, signs her e-mails with the following phrase; “Smile, breath, go slowly.”

I use this phrase a lot and remind myself to smile when I say the word. The key is practicing this phrase when I’m in a space that is relaxed so that when I’m under stress, saying it has more power. Plus, smiling sincerely for ninety seconds’ releases copious amounts of oxytocin.  People at stop lights might question your sanity, but that adds to the delight. Finally, smiling is excellent for your complexion which will give others another reason to be jealous of you; You’re smiling and you have great skin!

Another thing I like about the phrase, “Smile, breath, go slowly,” is that it is a non-ideological, non-judgmental phrase. It simply reminds me what I can bring to any moment; a smile, slow breathing and to relieve a sense of urgency and crisis.

People who have experienced trauma often live crisis-to-crisis and it is easy to get pulled into their pace. Mindfulness helps you pull the pace back into the moment, a huge gift in anyone’s life.

Honest AND Gentle Friendships

Honesty without gentleness is like a down comforter in a sandpaper duvet (for those of you who don’t know what a duvet is, think instead of a sleeping bag with a porcupine liner). We all need people who will be honest with us in our lives, but honesty without gentleness loses its impact in direct proportion to the degree of honesty (harshness of the message) in comparison with how little gentleness is offered. The harsher the message and the less the gentleness, the less the message has a positive impact.

Similarly, we need to find people in our lives who know the difference between when we are seeking advice and when we just need to be heard. The rule of thumb is, most people aren’t seeking counsel as much as they are seeking to be understood. Find a friend who understands this and you’ve found a jewel for life. Be a friend who practices this and you’ll never lack for relationships.

And speaking of relationships, touch—for the sake of touch—is a huge oxytocin releaser. Make your hugs last longer when they’re appropriate and timely. 

Less news

For your own sake, turn off your news feeds. Believe me, in two weeks—if you turn them on again—they will look exactly the same as when you turned them off. The news has two goals; 1) sensationalize everything, 2) tie all the non-related tragedies in the world together so they look like a coordinated catastrophe.

Use the time instead to research a scholarly paper or subject that interests you. Learn a new language (try an app like Duolingo, where you can even learn High Valyrian, the language on Game of Thrones). However—and I must stress this—I’m not suggesting you try and set up an Immersion experience for learning High Valyrian.  

Hobbies: Do something different and do it imperfectly

Hobbies are a great way to release oxytocin and lower cortisol. That is, unless you are like those of us who continually turn our hobbies into businesses. One former colleague of mine, an orthopedic surgeon, used to say, “We kill our hobbies.”

Before you start, promise yourself you’re just learning this hobby for relaxation and practice, not for perfection. Don’t seek to be an expert, just seek to grow your expertise. Give yourself permission to fail and feel free to fail boldly. 

When someone tells me he/she is “burning out,” I usually ask them about their hobbies. We don’t burn out from doing too much, we burn out from too much of the same thing. Add new activities that will take your mind off work, pick up an instrument, practice a new art or learn a new language.

Most adults can’t learn a new language because they are afraid of making a fool out of themselves when they first try to speak it. The majority of the Spanish I know was learned when I committed to spending a couple weeks immersed at an orphanage in Central Mexico. The children made wicked fun of me as I confused certain foods with insects, but, in the end, I lived to laugh about it (and expanded my culinary palate).

Keep in mind, when you embrace being a fool, you make yourself more open to learning, lower your stress and the tension of everyone around you.

Work on your gratitude and become a master of specific compliments

Very few activities raise your oxytocin and lower your cortisol than practicing the art of gratitude and specific compliments. As part of my weekly exercises with Group Home teens, we identify people in their lives to whom they are grateful and write them a note of gratitude. I prefer tangible notes (yes, old-school, snail mail), but for many of these youth, finding the physical address of people in their lives is not always easy.

Make a habit of finding three people in your life every day to whom you will give a specific compliment. It takes some work (and daring), but it is always worth it. Generic compliments backfire. Don’t just say, “Good job,” it demotivates people. The best compliment is when you take the time to find out something that person has been working on in their lives and compliment them for their progress. Perhaps your associate is working on their positivity and you’ve noticed improvement, a specific compliment would be, “You did a great job of bringing positive solutions to our meeting the other day, it really seems to be working into your goal of increased positivity.”

Never be insincere in your compliments or you will risk losing credibility.

I grew up in a family where a compliment meant a request was coming. Don’t be surprised if other people respond by thinking, “I wonder what he/she really wants?” But if you leave your compliment behind and separate your compliment from when you do need a favour, you’ll be surprised how quickly others will see you as a meaningful leader (after all you must be extremely smart because you complimented them…)


    Have Something to Share?

    Submit a News Post

    • Many years ago when developing our outreach to Youth in Detention in the Archdiocese of Detroit, MI, we had solicited Jerry Goebel to help train our volunteers. Jerry had developed a program called LifeCoach. It was a...

      Ida Johns, Detention System Outreach
      Read More
    • A Compelling Life... is filled with gentle invitations to reflect on life in all its' richness, beauty, joy, and sorrow. As a Catholic parent, I have worked with Jerry and his Web resources personally and...

      Dr. Dobie Moser, Catholic Family Ministries
      Read More
    • I have had the privilege of both watching Jerry work with youth and being taught by Jerry to use his methods with others. There are so many things I appreciate about it. The first thing I noticed is...

      Adelle T., Social Worker
      Read More