In a time of collective trauma, self care is not enough.
by Emily Santiago, LEP
Below is a list of roles necessary in forming a resilient community. Each role is important and essential. As our levels of stress and our ability to cope change based on a variety of situations, we will find ourselves in each of these roles at one point in time or another.
Dynamic Empowerment™ is a framework that enables us to build self awareness and support each other in promoting collective wellbeing in our schools and organizations. It is a theory of social interaction instead of a fixed individual profile. We naturally experience changes in the number of stressors and supports in our lives. By completing this assessment you will be able to monitor how these changes impact you and build self awareness about your role in the community. We hope this framework promotes compassion for yourself and others in times of stress. A healthy community celebrates and supports each quadrant!
What is resilience?
Resilience has become a buzzword in education and other fields. When faced with serious stressors we are urged to do what we can to maintain our wellbeing and productivity. Those that struggle can often be seen as lacking resilience and those that flourish are viewed as people who have resilience. Resilience in this context is framed as an individual trait, a psychological characteristic that makes up who we are and enables us to bounce back from adversity. How do you define resilience?
Bonnie Bernard, author of Fostering Resiliency in Kids, defines three factors for promoting resilience: High Expectations, Meaningful Participation and Caring Relationships. These factors are as important for adults as they are for children. They come down to having a community that believes in your potential, the ability to do something in the face of challenges, and being surrounded by people who make you feel seen and heard.
In most situations, we have the tools we need to be resilient but in times of crisis, our traditional coping strategies and support systems can be overwhelmed. In these times self care is not enough we must focus on collective wellbeing and organizational self care.
How do we shift our understanding of resilience to the collective? Instead of telling individuals to be resilient we must create environments where resilience is possible. As educators we must strive to create environments where resilience is inevitable (for ourselves and our students).
The factors of resilience measured in the assessment include:
- Connections- do you feel connected to people in your community?
- Boundaries- are you able to set boundaries and say no when you need to?
- Agency- Are there opportunities to do things that are meaningful to you and make a difference?
- Optimism- do you have a positive outlook on your future?
- Mindfulness- are you able to pause before you act and stay present?
- Persistence- when you work hard does it make a difference? do you keep trying when it is hard?
- Relationships- do you have supportive relationships with people who encourage and care for you?
- Physical health- do you maintain habits that promote physical health and wellbeing?
What is traumatic stress?
Stress is a natural part of our lives. Without stress, we can feel a lack of purpose or motivation. Examples of positive stress include competing in a race, getting married, or performing in front of an audience. Our heart rate increases and we often achieve a sense of focus and accomplishment. Tolerable stress is defined as adversity in the face of supportive relationships. Examples may include caring for a sick loved one, losing a job, or facing a global pandemic. Traumatic stress occurs when we experience adversity for a prolonged period of time and we have limited supportive relationships. Stress builds up in our bodies and limits our ability to heal physically, mentally and emotionally. In these cases we need to seek support and reduce stress in other areas to heal.
As educators we are exposed to varying levels of stress in our jobs. Secondary traumatic stress occurs when we care for others who experience stress and trauma. Facing traumatic stress without the proper supports can lead to burnout for even the most caring and competent educators. Burnout is a community issue not an individual one. Dynamic empowerment is a framework for collective wellbeing that prevents burnout and helps us build compassion.
In the book Trauma Stewardship, Laura van der Noot Lipsky shares “Trauma is not an event itself but rather a response to a stressful experience in which a person’s ability to cope is dramatically undermined.” The loss of control and overwhelm that results creates a trauma exposure response that is different for all of us. For some this may manifest in overwork to the point where physical symptoms become present before they recognize the impact of trauma. For others it may impact relationships due to our emotional capacity being maxed out.
Dynamic Empowerment recognizes that resilience and traumatic stress are variables that change constantly due to our current experiences. If we map out both factors on an axis we get four quadrants which are explained below. These 4 quadrants are all essential roles we play in a resilient community:
Here is a description of each of these quadrants:
Quadrant 1: Empower Others: High Resilience, Low Trauma Response
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” -Toni Morrison
In this quadrant, you are experiencing a small number of stressors and trauma responses currently in your life. It does not mean it has always been that way and it does not mean it will stay that way. It is time to be grateful for this moment and notice where you are at. You have a positive mindset, are in optimal health, and have positive interactions with others. This is high resilience. In this stage, you have a greater capacity to handle stress than the stress you are currently experiencing. This surplus resilience feels great but it may also leave you seeking challenges. For so long we took that drive for a challenge as an individualistic goal. We ran races, went shopping, and traveled. Now we realize empowering ourselves will not give us the satisfaction we seek, instead we must work to empower others. This shift in our goals will lead to less consumption and deeper contentment in our lives. It is also essential for building a healthy community.
Downsides: May frequently feel the need for a challenge. Having low stress is good but for prolonged periods you may struggle to find purpose.
Practice: Gratitude, write your goals, do the deeper work you have been putting off
Call to Action: This is your time to be a good friend, check in with others proactively and be the person someone can lean on in a relationship. Look at your community, what is happening? Take time to look for injustice and do something to address it. Write letters to your representatives or government officials about an issue that would benefit others instead of yourself. Volunteer your time at a local charitable agency. Look for opportunities in the community to help others. Repair your relationship with an estranged family member.
Quadrant 2: Empowered: High Resilience, High Trauma Response
“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” — Coretta Scott King
This is actively living life and addressing challenges. This is acknowledging that you have stressors you are facing and have the skills to address them. While you may be struggling with multiple stressors, you have built up the coping strategies and resources in your community so that you do not feel overwhelmed by challenges. You may feel energized by being so actively engaged in life. This feeling of independence is important but continue to monitor yourself as you may shift and the need to replenish or ask for help can occur quickly. This is a time to set boundaries and to be careful not to overextend.
Downsides: It can be hard to reflect when you are addressing so many needs. Self awareness is critical in order to continue to respond to stress.
Practice: Mindfulness, celebrating small wins, positive self talk
Call to Action: You are a model to others that you can be successful despite challenges in life. Take time to acknowledge your accomplishments even if it feels there are some stressors you cannot alleviate immediately. When you demonstrate to others that you are capable, they may expect more from you. Be careful to set boundaries and know that there are limits to the amount of things you can handle.
Quadrant 3: Empower Yourself: Low Resilience, Low Trauma Response
“In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel “burnout” setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.” -Dalai Lama
In this quadrant, you have reported a low amount of stressors however you also have a low amount of resilience. This is a perfect opportunity to work on self care and building up your resources to buffer against adversity that may occur in the future. It is not selfish to take time to focus on your own wellbeing and relationships. This is like a car that needs to stop for gas. How do you replenish yourself? Not focusing on your own needs in a time of low resilience is problematic and can lead to more significant mental health symptoms as well as a negative impact on your relationships. Focusing on yourself means you recognize that in order to contribute positively to your community, you need to be healthy and happy.
Downsides: It may take time to remember what it is like to focus on your own needs and you have to override that message that it is selfish to focus on yourself.
Practice: Create a self care plan, make a list of things that add stress to your life and decrease those if you can, slow down, practice saying no and set boundaries
Call to Action: In many helping professions, we have been taught to put the needs of others above our own. This has led to an epidemic of burnout and in some professions addiction and suicide. Not only should you take time to focus on building your own factors for resilience, you should share this journey with others. Be a model of self care for your colleagues and family members. Explain why it is important for you to take some time for yourself or for you to decline taking on more responsibilities.
Quadrant 4: Seek Empowerment: Low Resilience, High Trauma Response
“For years mental health professionals taught people that they could be psychologically healthy without social support, that “unless you love yourself no one else will love you.”…The truth is you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.” -Bruce D. Perry, M.D., PhD
In this quadrant, you have reported a high level of stress response and a limited capacity to cope with these stressors. While this may be unpleasant, everyone experiences this state at one point in time or another. The important thing to do is to be open to asking for or receiving help from others. This is not a sign of weakness but instead represents admirable self awareness and courage. It is better to ask for help proactively than to wait until a crisis. There are times when you have been able to help others and there will be times again in the future, but currently it is about decreasing responsibilities and focusing on building resilience. Vulnerability is scary but the refusal to be vulnerable can lead to a suppression of feelings and emotions and can lead to behavior that is dangerous for yourself or others.
Downsides: Low resilience means your support system may have been depleted, you may have to search for the supports you need outside of your comfort zone. It may be uncomfortable asking for help because of the stigma attached.
Practice: This is a time to acknowledge your strengths. Look through the resiliency factors and acknowledge what is working. By putting your focus on strengths, you will help them grow. It is also a time to accept help from others. When a person you trust offers you something, tell yourself it is ok to say yes even if you don’t offer anything in return. How do you feel in the moment? Notice it and tell yourself it is ok to have others assist you. When someone asks something of you practice saying no.
Call to Action: Let your guard down and ask for help. Reach out to others, acknowledge the impact trauma and stress are having on your life and be open to support from others.
Unlike many self assessments, there is no undesirable role. Each of these quadrants is normal and important. By acknowledging what role you are in at the moment and taking action, you are promoting wellbeing in your community! Collective wellbeing occurs when members of the community are able to care for each other effectively. Asking for help is just as important as giving help to promote this. What is your role in a resilient community in this moment?