9/11 Still an Issue a Decade Later

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9/11 Still an Issue a Decade Later

Here is a blog I wrote last year. It still rings true and it deserves repeating. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Carol Tosone is an associate professor of social work at NYU. Carol lived and worked through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and has become very interested in Second-Hand Shock. She shared in an interview that she is still “spooked” by the sound of airplanes since that tragic day.

Carol was curious if other social workers and mental health providers who treated 9/11 victims shared her experience of vicarious trauma, so she polled 500 helping professionals who worked in Midtown and Lower Manhattan during the attacks. She found that many of our heroes are still suffering. Her survey is an empirical testimony that many helping professionals share trauma with the people they are treating.

Tosone’s survey is being replicated in New Orleans among clinicians who counseled flood survivors. These clinical studies will help prepare social workers and other helping professionals who work in disasters and other traumatic situations to recognize and treat their own natural trauma responses. “We need to refortify clinicians,” said Tosone, who is also a member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Can you imagine that helping professionals and other caring witnesses are still suffering trauma responses a decade after the 9/11 tragedy? That certainly speaks to how insidious the effects of vicarious trauma can be! It also demonstrates a saddening lack of compassion and absence of resources for our heroes. Probably these heroes have been suffering with all types of unpleasant symptoms and they may have attributed these symptoms to other causes as a result of public apathy to their plight.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma or Second-Hand Shock run parallel with Post Traumatic Stress disorder and include:

  • negative emotions;
  • frequently feeling “on edge”;
  • existential upset that includes a negative world-view;
  • disruption in memory
  • intrusive imagery, including nightmares or recurring visualizations;
  • emotional numbing;
  • inability to tolerate strong emotions or hypersensitivity to emotionally charged content, such as seen in movies or television;
  • feeling anxious or worried for family members;
  • avoidance or “checking out” from the traumatic experience;
  • physical illnesses;
  • isolation and loss of ability to enjoy meaningful activities; and,
  • feelings of incompetence.

It is imperative for our heroes to be given the time and space to debrief and regroup after suffering Second-Hand Shock. The Rapid Advance Process is an effective technique that helps the helper to move out of the flight or fight reaction and back into their higher thinking which promotes a sense of inner peace and well-being.

I find it to be ironic that many helping professionals work so diligently to reduce the stigma around maintaining mental health, yet they may be falling prey to the same faulty thinking when it comes to their own welfare. It is long overdue for us to normalize the concept that helpers are negatively affected by listening to trauma content stories while they control their empathic responses. As we work together to raise public awareness, we build a safe environment for our heroes to seek the relief they so greatly deserve. I thank Carol Tosone for her work and her dedication to the helping professions.


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The Mad Ramblings of a Pedestal Professional

Helping can be very hard on the helper. I have been helping others since I was twenty-eight years old and make no mistake, it takes its toll. I read on a Facebook page, some weeks ago, a negative comment about mental health professionals. The comment described how screwed-up we mentals are and how we ride around town in our Beemers and say “Uh-huh” all day long. I was inspired by this comment. So, here goes.

I don’t drive a Beemer. I drive an old car that I bought used and will keep until it is too broken to drive. I don’t think I’ve said “uh-huh” much in the thirty years I have been practicing and quite honestly, I see it as my responsibility to give feedback back to people in a direct and supportive style. Let me share what really goes on in the life of a “pedestal professional”.

There are days I go into my office shortly after sunrise and do not emerge until well after sunset. I am present mind, body and soul for each client that walks in and out of my office. I feel with them; I suffer with them; I cry with them; I absorb their trauma and pain, and diligently maintain my composure and professionalism so that I can take it a step further and also offer a direction for client closure and healing.

I hear awful things in my job. Awful stories that contain the most heinous kind of pain and trauma…and I hear them over and over and over again. While I hear these stories, I must contain my own normally-horrified reactions and stay empathic with my client. Over time this causes me to suffer vicarious trauma or what my coauthor Vicki Carpel Miller and I call Second-Hand Shock. Forget the Beemer; a Bentley may not be worth this type of occupational hazard!

On top of that I create this weekly blog, take calls after hours, talk to people who need me immediately, contribute to numerous “helping” Facebook pages, serve on the Board of Collaborative Divorce Professionals of Arizona. I write books and articles, get continuously educated, teach, train and publicly speak all over the country.

When I come through the door after a long day at the office, I am often emotionally inverted. During these times, I feel as though my feelings have been sucked into a vacuum and I can hardly connect with my own family who needs my attention as well. Occasionally, I feel numb. Other times I think that if one more person asks one more thing of me I will scream.

After a day of truly being present for others, I frequently find myself in a negatively altered emotional and physiological state. Sometimes I suffer sleeplessness, periods of anxiety, periods of depression and physical ailments that are a direct result of the over-production of cortisol; a dangerous byproduct of the chemical cascade inherent in absorbing trauma on a repetitive basis. I am not ashamed to admit this, I want people to understand that the dedication it takes to truly help others heal, is at often the sacrifice of the healer.

I hear you now muttering under your breath, “Well, this is the career path you chose and if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” A true calling to help others is not so simply a choice; it is actually a rather complicated decision. It is my honor and privilege to be “port in the storm” for the people who request my help. However, I must draw the line when what I do is referred to in a negatively stereotyped and prejudicial manner. It is like adding insult to injury.

So here is my request: please don’t put me up on a pedestal and then shame me for putting me up there. I am a flawed little human and while I can reverently offer you the healing you seek and deserve, I break and bleed just like you. Thank you very much for reading about the mad ramblings. May you enjoy appreciation for what you do and who you are.


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Stress andTrauma: Second-Hand Shock

Here is an excerpt from our book Second-Hand Shock: Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma. Co-author Vicki Carpel Miller, BSN, MS, LMFT and I hope you find it to be informative and helpful.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

We have all heard of Second-Hand smoke.  What image does that conjure up for you?  Let us put you in a room with a heavy smoker.  You are breathing in the smoky air.  As you inhale, it irritates your nose, your mouth, your lungs, your bloodstream; it smells and remains on your skin, your hair and your clothes.  After a while, you might start wheezing or coughing; your eyes may become irritated.  Then, it may become difficult to breathe.  Prolonged exposure creates a greater risk for adversely affecting your health and well- being, perhaps causing damage to your heart and your brain.  Inhaling smoke over time may cause you to develop asthma, emphysema, chronic pulmonary disorder, cancer and the like.   Let’s look at how the experience of absorbing trauma, second-hand, is equally as dangerous.

The experience of absorbing trauma, second-hand, is much the same as the second-hand smoke example.  The person who experiences the primary trauma (in our example, the smoker) may be adversely affected by a syndrome called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The primary trauma survivor is the one who was in the car accident, at the disaster, caught in the storm, fighting the war, being abused or abandoned by a parent, a spouse, or suffering the rape, the robbery or the attack.  They are having the event directly happen to them. The heroes and caregivers who are called upon to help, listen, observe, intervene, guide and care are exposed to that same trauma, second-hand and over time, are at risk for Second-Hand Shock Syndrome (SHSS).

We believe that Second-Hand Shock Syndrome is a spectrum disorder that encompasses a wide range of physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual effects from the indirect experience of trauma much like being in the presence of a smoker creates the experience of second-hand smoke. Over time, this can indirectly create disease in its recipient.  The effects of trauma are secondarily contagious, adversely affecting your body, mind and spirit.

An Epidemic?

We believe that there are many millions of people struggling with some form of Second- Hand Shock Syndrome; both professional and lay persons.  We are all exposed to trauma daily, many times a day. The news, radio talk shows, instant information via the Internet continue to feed us copious doses of trauma-content while we have little consciousness of the fact that we are even being traumatized; much less what the trauma content is doing to our health and well-being.

When we are first indirectly exposed to trauma, our brain begins to paint an empathic picture for us by the activation of mirror neurons in the visual cortex, We ‘see’ the event as if it were happening to us. A series of bio-physiological events then occurs which results in the spilling out of chemicals into our bloodstream and throughout our body. This chemical chain reaction ultimately concludes with the over-production of cortisol, which is attributed to the onset of many serious physical illnesses.

We believe many people are currently being treated for the symptoms of Second-Hand Shock Syndrome, which can be confused with other illnesses.  Many folks are receiving treatment for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression, who likely began their downhill descent with some form of Second-Hand Shock Syndrome. We think it needs to become a recognized diagnosis and we believe that if people began to acknowledge and control the chronic intrusion of trauma content in their lives; their physical health would improve. It would also save our ailing health-care system billions of dollars.

If you are a caring listener, please take care of yourself. Trauma-content stories can be hazardous to your health. Educate yourself about Second-Hand Shock. Please check out our website: www.vicarioustrauma.com.