So I was working out at my local gym the other night in the “Cardio Theatre,” a pitch black room with elliptical trainers and treadmills and a large screen on one end which shows movies. The movie showing was the first Batman. On this particular evening it was late, almost ten pm. As I was working up a sweat, the scene with the evil man (okay I’ll say it: the evil psychiatrist) who wears a mask and sprays hallucinogenic poison came on, and I had to leave the room.
I have seen this movie before! I knew that eventually, after multiple challenges against seemingly impossible odds, Batman wins, Gotham city is saved, the cute little kid lives, blah blah blah, and the bad guys are defeated.
But that night it was late, dark, I was in the room alone, the scary scene was too scary for me and I ran out of that room like a little girl.
Why? The short answer is I’m a total wimp and don’t mind admitting it. A fuller answer is that as a psychotherapist I am exposed to my client’s stories of physical and sexual abuse, war, and addiction in the course of my work, so by the end of the day, my trauma load is full.
Trauma load is a theory, a very old theory if you recall the biblical metaphor of the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Or, if you prefer a modern spin, trauma load is like the “set point” theory for weight management. In set point theory, your body has an individual weight it wants to weigh and if you temporarily over or under eat your body will attempt to burn off or store the excess calories to keep you at that set weight.
Trauma load theory holds that each of us has a personal threshold of upsetting material we can be exposed to before we become symptomatic. If you hold a high trauma exposure career such as being a war time soldier, emergency room physician, fire fighter, police man, etc… you must develop a higher capacity for managing your trauma load or you will not last long.
But even if you are not in a high stress career, paying attention to your trauma load is of enormous importance if you do not want to become depressed, anxious, or just stressed out.
This really hit home for me about ten years ago when I was hired by an inpatient residential treatment center (since gone out of business) to work with severely emotionally disturbed children. I took the job with great enthusiasm: the money was good, and it seemed to be a real opportunity to grow my skills working with severely mentally ill children. But as it turned out, the employees there…were mean! Mean to the kids, mean to each other. It was awful.
With the distance of time and experience I know now that the facility was run by people who were not well trained, nor were they taking care of themselves emotionally. Additionally (or perhaps primarily) the employees were charged with taking care of children who were suicidal, homicidal, spitting, kicking, running away, breaking windows, trying to have sex in the bathroom stalls, etc… sure All of this coalesced into a snake pit of a work situation, and one I had to flee as surely as I fled the Batman movie the other night.
When I am made queen for a day (and I’m its going to happen any day now) I will wave my scepter and decree that people consider emotional self care to be just as important as food, water and shelter, even—make that especially—the tough folks out there who only put themselves on the top of their own to-do list when a medical or psychiatric emergency hits.
Especially in these times of economic uncertainty when we are regularly assaulted with “worry-button” news about unemployment and mortgage loan failures; to manage our personal trauma load it is a good idea to take inventory of WHAT specific experiences most stress us out and have a plan in place in advance. One healthy choice is to eliminate the optional stressors. For instance, if watching or reading the news stresses you out, don’t do it—at least for a while. Ask a news-hound friend notify you of any local or global emergency you need to know about and instead spend that time doing something relaxing. Like say, reading my blog. 🙂