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Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

Taking Care of Ourselves in the Context of Traumatic Events

Once again, we are faced with horrific national events: mass shootings that are impossible to comprehend or emotionally process and reconcile. For those of us who specialize in treating trauma, we are constantly asked to weigh in and either provide a reasonable explanation or assist others in processing their emotional distress and overwhelm. Clients with past histories of unpredictable, life-threatening experiences often grapple with a “rekindling” of thoughts and feelings connected to those unmetabolized, previous events when new, equally frightening world events occur. This leads to an exacerbation of their symptoms, making therapy sessions even more challenging.  I cannot answer “why” these nightmarish events keep happening, nor do I know what ultimately needs to happen to make the world a kinder, safer place for humanity.  What I do know is that as mental health providers, we have been challenged more than ever to find ways to compartmentalize and address our own legitimate fears, anxieties, outrage, and grief, while still serving as arbiters of hope and optimism for our clients. A very daunting and exhausting task!

Since I don't feel qualified to offer real solutions to the current state of the world’s unraveling, I want to use this space to, once again, remind my dear professional colleagues to be intentional about counter-balancing the stress of work with as much self-care and self-compassion that we can muster. If we're going to witness and stay attuned to our clients’ fears and suffering, and continue to provide them with the comfort they desperately need, we must also pay attention to our own fears and suffering, and find ways to lean into resources that bring us some modicum of comfort as well. The challenge is that we tend to approach whatever happens in life as therapists. We maintain an outward focus, sensitive to the micro-expressions, tone of voice, and the body language of others. We reflexively hone in on the vulnerability and emotional needs of others, instantly and compassionately wanting to help them.  

Right now, more than ever, I encourage you to make sure that you take the time you need to lean into the comfort of others in your personal life, without switching into “therapist mode.”

We need opportunities to vent, process, express our thoughts and emotions without worrying about taking care of the other person.

For the first time in my memory, it’s a level playing field. Therapists and clients alike are all grappling with PTSD, and the impact of uncertainty, chaos, grief, anger, and loss. If we are to remain effective in our work, we must be willing to practice what we preach: self-care and self-compassion are key. We have to honor and respect the fact that we all have limited emotional, mental, and physical bandwidths. Unless we engage in behavior that lets us unwind, re-energize, reconnect, and refill a “well” that runs dry by the end of a workweek, we will not be of any help to our clients, and we will put ourselves at great risk of burning out.

I will always have faith in our capacity to transcend and heal from traumatic events. And I will continue to believe that human beings can be loving, generous, compassionate, and kind.  And despite the craziness and unpredictability of the world, it gives me comfort to choose to believe those things. When all else fails, refocusing on what is in our control, rather than getting angry or overwhelmed by what isn’t, is an important and necessary mindset that can help us navigate chaotic and uncertain times.

Clinician's Tips:

- Find safe people in your life and let them be your compassionate witness.

- Engage in physical activities that allow you to release what you hold on to in your body.

- Devote extra time to getting a good night’s sleep.

- Limit your exposure to the news and social media- your brain already has enough difficult imagery that it attempts to process from your job.

- Look for ways to experience appropriate humor- laughter is cathartic and counterbalances pain.

- Engage in random acts of kindness- both you and the recipient benefit and it's a reminder that as human beings we can promote and experiencing kindness.

- Talk to your primary care provider or consider giving yourself the gift of therapy if you are legitimately struggling with unmanageable depression, anxiety, or emotional overwhelm,

- Identify and focus on the areas of your life that are within your control. Proactively make choices and engage in behaviors that promote that sense of agency and empowerment.

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