How lack of SPaCe leads to Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue

Written By: Samantha Eddy

Dr. Dan Libby, Executive Director of Veterans Yoga Project, sat on a Community Disaster Response Panel at last week’s CalVet and VetFund Leadership Conference (Sacramento, CA) addressing the effects direct and indirect exposure to trauma can have on individuals. The Leadership Summit featured veteran organizations from around California offering workshops addressing innovative solutions and community approaches in serving veterans and organizational training. Three other representatives from CalVet and California’s Office of Emergency Response (CalOES) sat on this particular panel, and agency response to recent California disasters such as the wildfires and Yountville Veterans Home shooting was discussed. Dr. Libby addressed the audience emphasizing the importance of Safety, Predictability, and Control (SPaCe) within all levels of a traumatic crisis response.

Trauma is an uncontrolled, unpredictable, heightened autonomic response to a particular event that threatens the life and safety of an individual. Libby argued that increased SPaCe at an agency and individual level lessens the degree of traumatic stress that one might face after the traumatic event. At an agency level, creating a more structured protocol allows individuals addressing the crises to predict more clearly what the process is going to be. At the individual level, there are tools that can be utilized to allow individuals facing whatever trauma present to lower their heightened autonomic response, therefore increasing SPaCe within their own minds and bodies. One of the tools Libby shared that can increase this feeling of safety within oneself is conscious, deep breathing.

Earlier in the panel, the emcee of the event, June Iljana, stated that panelists talking about the Yountville shooting evoked a “flustered” response within her. During his presentation, Dr. Libby asked the audience to take three deep inhales, with extended exhales. It was not only refreshing to hear an audience of veterans and clinicians take a deep breath in unison, but the emcee reported she felt her flustered feelings of recalling the trauma actually dissipate after just those three breaths. By taking a moment to breathe, she created SPaCe within herself. After the panel, Derrick from Warriors to Work not only reported feeling a sense of ease and lessened stress after taking those three deep breaths but that the veterans they serve via their organizations would benefit from learning these tools as well.

This lack of SPaCE not only affects those exposed directly to a traumatic event but also anyone exposed to those experiencing posttraumatic stress. Mental health clinicians, doctors, first responders, non-profit workers, anyone indirectly working with trauma can experience a lack of SPaCe in their own lives, leading to lessened compassion satisfaction in their jobs, and eventually compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can be conceptualized as reduced ability to empathize, or burnout occurring from wanting to help a traumatized individual, and Libby emphasized the need for SPaCe with individuals feeling burnt out in their work.

There are tools to increase compassion satisfaction and decrease the risk of compassion fatigue, and Veterans Yoga Project is stepping up to serve those working in the field of trauma. As funded by the Dakota Foundation, VYP has launched a course to help individuals increase compassion satisfaction and manage compassion fatigue. This webinar will not only offer education about the nature of compassion fatigue but offer chances to identify specific stressors and use self-regulatory tools to create SPaCe so that those in the field of trauma can find compassion satisfaction in their work once more.

Learn more about Mindful Resilience for Compassion Fatigue.

Samantha Eddy is a 200-Registered Yoga Teacher currently earning her Ph.D. studying yoga and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Samantha has been a volunteer with VYP for over three years, working as a research assistant within the Compassion Fatigue team and providing monthly program evaluation reports.