Direct and Vicarious Trauma in Critical Occupations: Depleted Empathy and the Hope of Reconciling Interpersonal Relationships
By: Joshua Browne, M.P.S
A few months ago, I was travelling out of my immediate police agency jurisdiction for the purpose of attending a court hearing. As I exited the interstate and traversed the lengthy, winding and suspended off ramp, I noticed a male walking on the ramp against traffic. Upon first spotting the male, I was in excess of 100 yards away, travelling in the number 1 lane at near freeway speeds, as he continued along the south shoulder of the number 2 lane. I immediately knew my hopes of arriving at the important court hearing on time were dashed, however, the male’s intentions were not immediately obvious. Eighteen years of police experience produced a conditioned response, some have referred to as defensive pessimism (Felder, 2014), causing me to immediately consider a range of possibilities from benign to catastrophic.
I hoped his plans did not include a suicide attempt, either by hurling himself into oncoming traffic or leaping off the bridge onto the ground below. Perhaps he was simply walking against traffic for some other rational or irrational reason? I activated my red and blue lights, hoping to gain the compliance of motorists in the number 2 lane, as I slowly began the process of changing lanes. Unfortunately, as any veteran law enforcement officer can attest is often the case, the vehicle operators ignored me and failed to yield. Simultaneous to my lane change attempts, the male stopped, placed his hands on the concrete railing and peered down below. He adjusted his location slightly and decisively lifted himself to a standing position on top of the railing. I frantically attempted to complete the lane shift and slow my speed, anticipating a pending negotiation with the male. However, as I shifted to park, in preparation to exit my vehicle, the male raised his hands high above his head and determinedly dove head first off the bridge. His movements were identical to an Olympic diver exiting a high dive platform with poise and determination and so nonchalant, I questioned what lay below. Was there a swimming pool hiding below the railing? The jumper’s movements, from the time he first peered over the railing, until his exit, was less than 5 seconds in duration.
Of course, no swimming pool, nor any other form of a safety net could be found below. As I gazed over the railing, only the lifeless and obviously deceased body of the male, resting upon the rail tracks could be observed. Similar to many career law enforcement professionals, I had been tasked with addressing numerous traumatic circumstances throughout my career, but had never witnessed anyone jump off a bridge, especially in a circumstance not involving a call for service. As I considered the many civilian witnesses to this tragic event, including the trauma that was surely inflicted upon them, I was angry at the jumper. I felt the weight of the injustice of what they had experienced, as well as the implications of what he had placed upon me. As I reflected upon this experience, I considered it in the context of its synergistic impact upon my psyche, as it interacted with hundreds of additional traumatic circumstances I witnessed throughout my law enforcement career. These experiences include both the infliction of direct and vicarious traumatization.
Direct and Vicarious Traumatization:
First person exposure to trauma, such as the witnessing of the jumper, as related above, illustrates direct trauma, a shared experience of first responders. Whereas, vicarious or secondary traumatization is experienced by a plethora of professionals operating in critical occupations. Vicarious traumatization occurs due to secondary exposure to the distressing experiences of others (Conn & Butterfield, 2013; Tovar, 2011). In a law enforcement context, this could occur as officers or detectives interview a crime victim of a horrendous act, a therapist during a counseling session and a social worker or victim advocate while providing emotional support to a client. These examples are not exhaustive, but demonstrate the application of secondary trauma within a few critical occupation contexts. It is important to be mindful of the cumulative effect of these experiences on the individual psyche of the professional operating in a critical occupation. If not properly addressed, the sustained infusion of vicarious trauma retains the capacity to inflict considerable damage to the emotional well-being of the recipient (Conn & Butterfield, 2013).
Interpersonal Communication and Critical Occupations:
Interpersonal communication in many contexts can be difficult to effectively navigate. The unique challenges associated with those operating in critical occupations (Tovar, 2011), such as police officers, victim advocates, firefighters, paramedics, military personnel, emergency medical teams, rescue workers, and even police and fire dispatchers can exacerbate effective and empathetic communication in interpersonal relationships outside of a professional setting. Many other helping professions such as victim advocates, counselors, therapists and social workers can also become vulnerable to communication difficulties with loved ones, as the ability to retain sufficient empathy required to effectively meet their needs becomes strained (Tovar, 2011). The phenomenon of vicarious traumatization occurs as individuals empathetically engage with traumatic circumstances.
Although in some circumstances, first responders may successfully mitigate the effects of direct and vicarious traumatization by practicing distancing techniques (Chopco & Schwartz, 2009), such a tactic is often incompatible with the need to apply sufficient empathy, requisite to effectively assist victims of traumatic circumstances. For example, in my previous role as a Special Victim’s Unit detective, a significant measure of empathy was required to retain the passion necessary to engage in the arduous process of completing a comprehensive investigation. As I expended vigorous empathy in this process, I was left vulnerable to the possibility of burnout, post-traumatic stress and a measure of vicarious traumatization. Although my symptomology never reached the threshold required for the clinical diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, burnout, post-traumatic stress, as well as direct and vicarious traumatization have enacted their share of negative consequences throughout my career.
Connecting and Communicating with Spouses:
As I reflect on seventeen years of marriage, almost all of which has been spent while working as a police officer, I can recall many frustrating verbal exchanges with my wife. I’m sure most married couples can relate, with the exception of those few annoying individuals, who insist they have never had an argument with their spouse. While disagreements, difficulty comprehending the other’s point of view and general communication frustrations are a ubiquitous component of married life for many couples, the impact of this disjointed communication can become aggravated by direct and vicarious traumatization, a common ailment for many individuals operating in critical occupations.
Recently, the interaction of vicarious traumatization and inhibited empathy became apparent to me, after a day of what I perceived as substantial sincere attempts to converse with my wife. Towards the end of a long day of failed interpersonal communication, we were both left discouraged with the inability to connect on a deep emotional level. I did not question my wife’s sincere efforts to engage in honest communication designed to enhance our relationship, but I wondered if we were actually using English as our medium. Since I speak Vietnamese as a second language and my wife Korean, maybe we were unwittingly speaking our alternate languages! Of course, I am being facetious, but the ridiculousness of the statement was meant to illustrate the level of our frustration.
Later in the day, I left my residence for a couple of hours accompanied by my son, to attend a special religious service. This activity provided me with the opportunity to meditate and consider my spiritual and emotional status. As I began to calm my mind, I reflected on the concepts of direct and vicarious traumatization, notions I had been studying and pondering for several days. The religious service restored my soul and I felt my ability to experience empathy return in a poignant and vigorous way. As I pondered my earlier interactions with my wife, I realized that a significant culprit explaining our strained communication could be traced to diminished empathy on my part. Although I had given my wife all of the compassion and empathy I could muster, in hindsight, it was mediocre at best. I had expended a full work week draining my emotional reserves, by providing empathetic responses to victims of traumatic experiences, resulting in the infiltration of a measure of vicarious trauma, as well as depleted empathy. I had returned home to my wife and family, a compromised husband and father. Individuals working in critical occupations must often expend a considerable measure of empathy, in order to effectively assist the victims they serve. This process often exposes the individual to vicarious traumatization, while simultaneously depleting the emotional reserves required to extend the empathy necessary to cultivate successful interpersonal relationships (Charles, 2009; Tovar, 2011).
Strategies for Restoring Empathy and Healing Interpersonal Relationships:
Fortunately, personal experience, as well as substantial scientific research provides several strategies capable of restoring empathy and healing strained interpersonal relationships. I would like to share a few of the methods I have found to be most beneficial in acting as therapeutic agents. Although this list is far from exhaustive, I am confident the utilization of these suggestions will provide a framework for the restoration of empathy and the renewal of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.
The personal experience related above exemplifies one such strategy buttressed by scientific research, as a practical emotional resilience and empathy replenishing tactic. Although my example interacts with organized religion and serves as an effective methodology for me, scientific research has found the reliance on personalized spirituality, whether characterized as religion or some other meaningful construct, to be an effective rejuvenation tool (Charles, 2009; Tovar, 2011). The human psyche seeks for meaning, especially while confronting such demanding ventures as interpersonal relationships. As individuals successfully connect with a purpose judged greater than the self, and usually involving others, depleted emotional reserves can be rejuvenated and empathy restored (Duckworth, Eichstaedt, & Ungar, 2015). Considerable scientific research asserts you will realize similar positive benefits as you embrace spirituality as a tool in your emotional resilience arsenal (Charles, 2009).
In my case, remembering that my daily and sometimes seemingly inconsequential acts, such as prayer, meditation and the study of religious texts, serve a purpose in a schema greater than me, floods my soul with meaning and gratitude. These activities allow me to rediscover purpose and orientate towards lifting and serving others, a hallmark of successful, gritty, resilient and happy people (Duckworth et al., 2015). Most world cultures, religions, ethical systems, and burgeoning scientific research support this notion (Covey, 1989). I personally know that engaging in activities outside of my professional responsibilities that lift others, fills my soul with joy, purpose and healing.
I mentioned gratitude as a positive byproduct of my connection to spiritual experiences. Unfortunately, humans tend to become desensitized to the beauty and wonder infused in their world. The consistent existence of many life enhancing fixtures in our personal lives have a tendency to become invisible, as we focus our attention on what we deem as missing or lacking. This propensity interacts with chemical processes in our brain and convinces us to embrace uneasiness and unhappiness. Conversely, realizing and enumerating positive aspects of our lives increases happiness, flooding the human system with dopamine and subsequently activating the learning centers in the brain (Achor, 2010). One study found that by creating a gratitude list, recording three unique items each day, happiness increased significantly (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). This pursuit not only provides perspective in the context of personal relationships, but enhances the brain’s ability to confront the challenges inherent in dynamic interpersonal relationships.
Although society generally accepts the concept of physical exercise as a beneficial component of overall health, the over emphasis on its physical benefits, such as weight loss, strength augmentation and cardiovascular maintenance, may mask some of its emotional and psychological healing properties, such as catapulting first responders out of the low end of the hypervigilance cycle, burning cortisol, reducing stress, anxiety, depression and activating endorphins (Achor, 2010; Gilmartin, 2002). Regular physical exercise has been a vital component of my stress and anxiety reducing strategy, and almost magical in restoring homeostasis, after a period of on duty hypervigilance. My wife and children understand that by supporting time devoted to physical exercise, they are contributing to my physical and emotional rejuvenation process, allowing me the ability to engage in dedicated healthy family interaction. My wife supports this process, by accompanying me to the gym. I recommend that family members engage in regular physical exercise together, as this pursuit will contribute to the positive outcomes outlined above, resulting in the fortification of family relationships.
Employment in the critical occupations can contribute to cynicism and burnout, as supporting those in crisis can produce the illusion that the entire world is in constant peril. We may forget that not everyone is a child molester, burglar, drug dealer, addict, gang member or other person of questionable character, whose behavior drains our emotional reserves. Wholesome associations with others outside of the professional environment, allow those working in critical occupations the opportunity to reconnect with well adjusted, positive, productive, and nonthreatening people, who can restore our faith in humanity. I consider these relationships as revitalizing gifts, replenishing my empathy reserves, refreshing my outlook and elevating my gratitude for the blessings in my life. I admonish all to reinvest in these associations, as a tool for the restoration of hope and functional interpersonal relationships.
The factors interacting with trauma, emotional resilience and successful interpersonal relationships are multifaceted and complex. Although the items I discussed in this article are not exhaustive, I am confident that the implementation of these suggestions will assist in providing a healing path for all of us who interact with direct and vicarious trauma. As empathetic reserves are depleted and preserving healthy interpersonal relationships becomes problematic, the hope of reconciliation remains, as we realize we can autonomously pursue therapeutic endeavors. I implore you to leverage the longing you feel to connect with your love ones, to drive your resolve to embrace proactive relationship enhancing measures.
Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting. He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness. His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career. He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.
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