Teaching a Stressed System to Relax: Living in the Gaps
“The more I practice cultivating the gaps and being really present for them, the more my nervous ...
Most mornings, I dread opening my email. Today was a case in point. In the span of ten minutes, I learned that thirteen Yellowstone bison were killed in a collision with a semi-truck and that dolphins have to shout to hear each other over human-created noise pollution.
Unsurprisingly, many of us animal advocates often report high levels of emotional distress, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, cognitive dissonance, and moral injury. Yet this reality is woefully under-reported.
The good news is that spiritual practices and community support can help us increase our resiliency. In her book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Trauma Stewardship Institute founder Laura van Dernoot Lipsky identifies 16 warning signs to keep an eye on and then address. Take a look at the list below and consider whether any hit home for you.
16 Signs of Trauma Exposure Response
Feeling helpless and hopeless
A sense that one can never do enough
Inability to embrace complexity (right/wrong thinking)
Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments
Inability to listen/deliberate avoidance
Sense of persecution
Anger and cynicism
Inability to empathize/numbing
Grandiosity: an inflated sense of importance related to one’s work (“If I don’t do it, no one else will”)
We may feel some of these daily, or they can come and go as we alternate between periods of intense work and rest. So, if you find yourself collapsing after work to binge-watch your favorite show, scrolling your social feeds for hours, shouting at your family, or any other sign of trauma exposure, consider making changes to how you approach your advocacy.
In her book, van Dernoot Lipsky advocates for practicing trauma stewardship. Practicing trauma stewardship means that we reflect on why we do the work of advocacy, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences. By engaging in this inquiry, we start to steward the heartbreak we see in the world rather than absorb it.
For me, stewarding trauma requires that I acknowledge that I am doing the best I can on any given day. I remember that I am not responsible for healing all the suffering in the world. However, I am making a difference for whichever animal I work with—or on behalf of—each day.
When my inner voice starts whispering, “But you could do more…” I gently remind her that I’m no good to anyone when I’m burnt out and can’t get out of bed. I school her that the Buddha taught the Middle Way rather than “work till you drop.” I explain to her that Mark 4:38-40 suggests that even Jesus spent time alone in the back of the boat sleeping, and a sage tortoise showed us that the steady, mindful one wins the race over a rabbit prone to grandiosity.
It’s crucial to note that trauma stewardship does not mean that we have to “suck it up” or prove our strength. On the contrary, it means we recognize that advocating for animals can be heartbreaking, lonely, and frustrating. We must acknowledge that animal advocacy takes an incredible amount of emotional labor, and we must rest from it. If we don’t, we will burn out, which is not helpful for ourselves or those lives we work to save or improve.
Most of us are not neophytes to the importance of spiritual practice. However, many of us do struggle with implementing a daily routine. You must commit to doing something that centers you every day—no excuses.
Singing, chanting, or mantra meditations can be particularly effective. “In essence, the more you exercise your brain—mentally, physically, socially, and contemplatively—the healthier it becomes,” reports neurotheologian Andrew Newberg in How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. “Maintain a state of relaxed awareness, regulate your breathing, and perform a simple or complex movement with any part of your body. As you do this, sing, chant, or silently repeat a sound or phrase that has personal meaning.”
Newberg and his research team advise that benefits begin at twelve minutes of practice, and improvement generally begins after two weeks. In addition, as you age, making your activity longer and more complex can help you strengthen neural circuits that tend to deteriorate over time.
Many mental health professionals advise that social support is essential to managing resilience. A romantic partner, family member, or friend can be a beneficial lifeline. Indeed, “being heard” is often the antidote to feeling alone.
Yet, when we share our heartbreak with others—especially those who are not as knowledgeable about the realities of life on Earth for other species—we risk invoking a trauma exposure response in them. So it’s important to share with others mindfully and skillfully. Ask yourself:
Do I talk about my work in ways that are sensitive to not activating trauma in others?
Can I recognize that my friends, family, and spiritual community may have different capacities on any given day for taking in heartbreak?
What level of specificity is practical when talking about violence and exploitation? Would focusing on my feelings―rather than “facts” and details―help others hear me better?
For many advocates, enjoying life while others are suffering can feel prickly: “How can I possibly rest or laugh when there is one more intake to do? One more life to save?”
Your life matters, too. It’s no joke. Laughter may be a potent medicine, after all. So, watch your feline housemate try to fit himself into a small box. Head over to YouTube and search “dogs on slides.” Perch in front of a bird feeder and let a squirrel’s tenacity entertain you.
Paradoxically, making time for ourselves means we may have more time for others overall.
Want more help managing compassion fatigue? Read about Sustainable Activism.
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