Time to talk trauma

Family practitioners face the combination of a highly stressful job and highly stressed clients. An awareness of trauma – and vicarious trauma – can help manage cases and reduce the personal burden

My interest in trauma started on a plane journey to Crete when I came across an article featuring Dr Anthony Feinstein and his book on war journalism and the impact of vicarious trauma on the journalists (Journalists under fire: The psychological hazards of covering war). I couldn’t help but wonder about family lawyers and judges in this context.

Later on, sitting on my sunny balcony, I wrote a speculative email to Dr Feinstein.

Much to my surprise and delight the next day, I received a response. Dr Feinstein was interested to talk to me about lawyers and vicarious trauma. He had had similar thoughts and was keen on some collaborative work. This was the beginning of a number of conversations that continue to this day.

I took a sabbatical, training as a coach with the Tavistock and as a yoga teacher. I embarked on an enormous amount of research, which included talking to lawyers, reading all of the major texts on trauma and vicarious trauma, and having conversations with many authors and experts on the subject.

I also entered a period of reflection and decompression from my own traumatic experience as a family lawyer. And slowly I gained the necessary perspective to start to coach and write on trauma and, ultimately, to create and run workshops designed for family lawyers to recognise and release their trauma.

It feels like the coming together of all of my life and work experience – of being at the family law bar for 20+ years, of training and coaching, and of practising yoga.

So, what would I say is the purpose of this work?

  • to educate those working within the family law system, and in particular lawyers, about trauma, how to recognise it, and how to draw on resources to manage it
  • to share – in a way that is experienced through coaching or the interactive exercises in the workshop – how to release the trauma, including the cases stuck in your system
  • to help practitioners understand how to create an environment and to question clients in a way so as not to re-traumatise them

My research confirmed what I suspected: that many lawyers, judges, court staff and clerks do not understand what trauma and vicarious trauma is on an emotional or physiological level.

Understanding this is clearly the first step.

A simple explanation is that trauma is an experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope both physically and emotionally, and it leaves a wound in the system.

Four key points arise from this:

  • trauma is lodged in the brain and the nervous system in particular
  • it impacts nearly every part of the brain and can control your life
  • it remains in the system – it does not leave without some form of release
  • it accumulates and can be triggered, potentially causing a re-traumatisation

It follows that if a great number of practitioners do not know how to recognise trauma in themselves, there is little or no chance that they will be managing it well and releasing it.

Even the most experienced trauma practitioners still experience re-traumatisation as a result of triggers. Gabor Maté, in his recent book on trauma, The Myth of Normal, tells a story of how his wife (perfectly legitimately) said no to collecting him from the airport after he had been away for work. Gabor’s reaction to his wife’s refusal triggered the trauma he experienced when young by his mother abandoning him for a period of time. Gabor explains that it made him feel abandoned again and affected his behaviour towards his wife. He illustrates how trauma can grip you. Of course, both he and his wife are well equipped to recognise the trauma response and act protectively, so it doesn’t impact further.

Childhood trauma is a particular challenge to overcome – as is very familiar to family lawyers who undertake care work. I spoke to Peter Deadman who wrote the book Live well, live long. He described childhood trauma as being like initials etched into a sapling tree. As the tree grows older, the initials become deeper and larger through life. It’s a rather bleak and arresting image. Dealing with trauma exposure in adulthood will not leave such a deep impact, but it will leave its mark.

So, what about vicarious trauma?

Because of the propensity for trauma to remain stuck in our systems, the potential for triggers and re-traumatisation are high. This is especially so when there is stress or anxiety present.

Mirror neurons explain why you can feel what someone else feels as they experience it. The image below illustrates the point.

Mirror neurons mean that when you are with your client and they are experiencing a re-traumatisation – which they are very likely to do when giving you instructions – their systems (body and mind) will respond as if they are experiencing the trauma again. They will have the same fight, freeze or flight response as during the actual incident. When you listen to the client’s account, sharing the same physical space, you will also experience the trauma.

It is mind boggling to imagine the level of trauma exposure in a court building. If no one in that court building knows how to recognise and regulate their systems then everyone is at risk of becoming even more traumatised.

Once you know how to self-regulate, the mirror neurons can be effective the other way, in having a calming effect on you and as a result on your client.

In order to reduce the effects of triggers, it is necessary to become good at recognising a trauma response and then to access your resources to release the trauma.

I have found that the most effective way to illustrate this is through coaching and/or the interactive exercises I have devised. I have written them using scientific research and taking account of psychological tools used in trauma treatment. I am grateful for the help I have been given by a group of experts. I have also used coaching tools which assist in providing a deeply felt experience and understanding of release.

My own reflections have led me to conclude that there are specific aspects of being a family practitioners that make you particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of trauma:

  • The amount and frequency of trauma exposures without adequate breaks.
  • The lack of training in how to handle clients’ emotions. This means that practitioners are likely to draw on their own experiences to show empathy and help their clients, which could in itself provoke a re-traumatisation.
  • The fact that practitioners are aware of the lack of adequate training around handling emotions puts them in the consciously incompetent zone of competence, and keeps them there. This is an extremely anxiety-provoking place to be. When someone is anxious, this heightens any trauma response and impedes access to resources.
  • The pressure and performance aspect of the job adds to the stress and anxiety referred to above.
  • The lack of time and space to reflect and release the trauma regularly means that it builds and leaves practitioners at high risk of burn out and long-term health issues.
  • The fact that the majority of lawyers do not have regular supervision.

Covid and the state of the family justice system only makes matters worse.

Long periods of exposure to trauma – without the resources to manage and release – can cause damage to your brain and body. This is well researched and documented. Mental and physical health is at risk.

The statistics are frightening: in May 2022 research conducted for “Today’s Family Lawyer” cited 92% of lawyers facing burn out or stress and 25% experiencing this daily. Less than 25% felt supported by their firms when they suffered burn out or stress.

More must be done! The fact is that it is possible (and indeed rewarding) to work with trauma and traumatised clients if you know how to manage and release it. Indeed, having the requisite tools and resources also makes you more effective at your job.

Becoming a trauma-informed practitioner is crucial for your clients. It is important to limit any re-traumatisation and to know how to help someone effectively when they are experiencing trauma.

I hope the workshops I offer are a start. I hope it’s the start of a new way of living and working – one which involves a commitment to this work and to change.

I offer some workshops with Dr Bruce McEwan BSc DClinPsy, a practitioner clinical psychologist who has 25 years of working with trauma and is a trained EMDR and EFT practitioner.

I am on a mission to bring awareness to this really important issue. So please do get in touch to start the work.

Here is a link to the promo for the workshop https://vimeo.com/787541982

Reviews are on my website, camillawells.com