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Coping With Trauma as a Volunteer

Volunteering to help organizations that serve the homeless population is a wonderful way to give back to your community. And while help is certainly needed, it’s important to understand that many individuals who are experiencing homelessness have also experienced intense trauma that might impact the way they interact with you.

Here are some basic ways volunteers can learn to process and cope with the experiences they have while serving.

How to prepare to enter a situation in which you know you are going to be caring for a survivor of trauma

If you know you are going to be meeting with someone who has survived trauma, remember that first and foremost, you are dealing with someone who is hurting. They might respond to your help with extreme emotions like anger or hurtful words. But their response is not personally directed at you. They are simply protecting themselves as they sort through their pain.

It’s important to be calm and present when serving people who have experienced trauma. One of the best ways to reduce stress is to focus on your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths and meet people where they are with grace and compassion.

Many people you’ll encounter have been abandoned, hurt, and shamed. They are not a problem to solve or a task to complete. They are a person who needs love. It’s important to remember that we serve to love people even if they seem to reject it.

Second-hand trauma

When you spend time with individuals who have experienced trauma, something can happen called secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. This kind of trauma can happen to caregivers, friends, or family members who interact with someone who has experienced trauma. Hearing about trauma, or receiving the pain of someone who has experienced trauma, can be very difficult to process. For counselors, social workers, and other professionals or volunteers who regularly spend time hearing the difficult stories of trauma, they can begin to absorb some of that pain and even feel physically the impacts of the trauma on the other person. Second hand trauma can lead to increased stress, unhealthy habits like overeating or restrictive eating, exhaustion, paranoia, or depressive moods. It can also make you feel hopeless, guilty, fearful, helpless or unwilling to continue in your work. 

If you have experienced some kind of trauma yourself, processing these moments might prove to be especially difficult because it can retrigger your own traumatic experiences, making you especially vulnerable and escalated. If you have experienced trauma, reaching out to a mental health professional can be helpful. Sometimes it’s not until you begin to help others with their pain that you realize you have underlying pain. Seeing a counselor to process and heal from the trauma in your own life will be a huge step in being able to care well for others who have experienced trauma. 

How to care for yourself after you meet with someone who has experienced trauma

Serving the homeless community can at times be very stressful and impact our physical and emotional health. It’s important to take care of yourself so that you can continue to serve people in need. Having a self-care routine is one way to help process the emotions that may come with serving. 

Self-care is simply a practice or practices that you can do to care for your own well-being. One of the most important self-care practices is to reflect on your experience to understand how it impacted you so you can let go of the emotional weight you don’t need to carry. Evaluate the experiences that were most overwhelming, challenging, or upsetting. Ask yourself why those things impacted you. Write these thoughts down in a journal and bring them to God in prayer.

Most people already have certain activities that they turn to for self-care. It might be exercise or getting outside in nature, meeting up with a friend to talk, journaling, being creative, or anything that helps you feel joy. When coping with potential second hand trauma or high-stress situations, it is important to give yourself extra space to recover and relax. 

It might even be a good idea to talk to another volunteer about the difficulties you are experiencing or the program director. They are certain to understand the kind of situations you are going through and can offer support, encouragement, and compassion. 

The biggest takeaway here is to pay attention to how you are feeling and any behavior changes that are happening in response to volunteering. Your own emotions and body will help tell you when you are overwhelmed, triggered, or upset. Give yourself space to recover and heal. 

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