Help for Wounded Warriors: Healing People of Service

The people we call on when disaster strikes carry a psychological burden that is too often ignored
July 23, 2020 Updated: July 23, 2020

Whatever the crisis and wherever it may strike, first responders will have to deal with it. These are the people that put out the fires, tend to the wounded, and clean up the mess left behind.

These jobs can be physically—and psychologically—dangerous. Stories of trauma and recovery among these individuals are found in a new book, “The Connected Servant.”

Author and holistic health coach Sean McCarthy has worked with trauma victims from all over the world for more than 20 years, but when he talked to doctors, nurses, police officers, soldiers, social workers, and other people of service, he saw a consistent pattern. These were individuals who had committed their lives to helping others, and yet their jobs brought them suffering.

“The people who serve the world aren’t being taken care of. They are the wounded warriors out there,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy first noticed this pattern at an event last year in Vienna, titled “Evolving Beyond Trauma.” He was part of a panel of experts who had come to share insights about overcoming traumatic experiences.

Talking to the other speakers, McCarthy found that they were all haunted by the very trauma they were working to ease.

“You’re the epicenter of this topic in your country, and you don’t have a mechanism to support you and to take care of you and to make sure that you’re OK? I found that really odd,” McCarthy said. “That’s why I wrote the book.”

Several obstacles, from the personal to the systemic, block the help these helpers need. Many of them fear being vulnerable and have overly high expectations of themselves. Soldiers and first responders are routinely hailed as heroes for their bravery, dedication, and ability to perform under tremendous pressure. However, maintaining this tough exterior while hiding pain or weakness comes at a high price.

“People who are providing care don’t want to appear weak. When I spoke to firemen, they really didn’t want to have this conversation,” McCarthy said. “I worked with a highly dedicated Marine who served three tours in Iraq. He’s supposed to be a tough guy. He’s not supposed to have an issue.

“It took the CEO of his company to come to me and ask if I could help him.”

Another trend McCarthy sees is that people who carry unresolved trauma can unconsciously seek out more trauma, because it matches how they feel inside. This is why someone who grows up in a home filled with drama and violence might find themselves gravitating toward a similar environment as an adult.

“I was working with two military guys who both said that one of the reasons they went into the military is because they had a death wish so they could stop the noise from their childhood trauma,” McCarthy said.

Some people are motivated simply by the desire to serve, but they may give too much. Pilar Jennings, a psychoanalyst and Buddhist meditation teacher in New York City, says that the admirable qualities inherent in health care providers, in particular, can lead them to become overwhelmed.

“These people will often give more than they have, and this can be tricky in a crisis because the need is endless. But if they cannot recognize that they need help, it can become dangerous,” Jennings said. “Marriages can break apart. Parents can unwittingly overstimulate or harm their children just because they’re giving too much, and they’re not getting the help they need.”

What Is Trauma?

There is more sensitivity and awareness surrounding trauma than ever before. We acknowledge that physical wounds can heal in weeks or months, while psychological traumas can linger for much longer. This lasting impact explains why many suffer their whole lives as a result of early traumatic experiences. One theory, called epigenetics, suggests that our ancestors even pass on a genetic imprint of the traumas they suffered.

Trauma has a way of stretching beyond the initial event, resulting in nightmares, flashbacks, and suspicion that can last for decades. This can cloud our decisions, and warp our relationships. It can cause us to react out of fear rather than respond out of reason. Over time, it can result in patterns of addiction and abuse.

As a result, people often feel ashamed or defective due to trauma-induced reactions. But Jennings says these patterns are extremely common. She defines trauma simply as stress that overwhelms our coping mechanisms. It could come from an accident, or a developmental experience early in life. What makes it traumatic is our inability to handle it.

Jennings points to situations that are exceedingly terrifying or enraging. In these instances, our body floods itself with stress hormones and overwhelms the mind.

“When we don’t have the ability to use our cognitive function, then we’re in a traumatized state,” Jennings said.

Two common symptoms often accompany a trauma that make it hard to identify and let go. One is disassociation—where our minds try to block out the experience. The other is a search for soothing.

“This is where addiction and compulsive behaviors tend to amplify,” Jennings said.

Finding Help

Soldiers, health care workers, and first responders need to be tough as part of what they do. But Jennings says even the toughest individuals are vulnerable to overload. While it’s natural to want to self-soothe after a hectic day, this coping mechanism can quickly turn into self-harm, or harm of others.

“The two beers a night turns into a six-pack or a few bottles of wine a night. The nervous stomach becomes unable to get enough food,” Jennings said. “The feeling of irritation with their wife or child turns into an uncontrolled rage reaction. These are signs that they are carrying too much and they need support.”

Those brave enough to ask for help can have a hard time finding it. McCarthy mentions one police officer who was rattled after tending to a motorcyclist who had been severely injured in a traffic accident. The officer secured a section of the highway and kept the victim company until the ambulance arrived. But due to the narrow scope of care the police force provided, the officer received no support for the pain he had experienced.

“Because a gun was not fired, no counseling was given to him,” McCarthy said.

When help is available, it may not be the right help. Prescriptions and talk therapy are often the only treatment options that insurance networks provide or cover. But Jennings says there is a mind-body connection with trauma that conventional treatment doesn’t address.

“Mind and body are intimately bound; there is no way to separate them out. This is true for every aspect of our life, but it becomes really pronounced with trauma. People can develop a lot of insight into how and why they were traumatized, but their bodies are still re-experiencing the trauma,” Jennings said. “And a lot of people end up organizing their whole lives to avoid re-traumatization.”

Sometimes the mind tricks the body. Memories or triggers of memories can lead to that same flood of hormones, the same feelings of overwhelm.

Over the past few decades, clinicians and researchers have discovered that trauma not only affects the mind, but also the nervous system. As a result, the body can get stuck in a fight or flight response—even when the mind understands that the reaction is irrational. Jennings mentions several therapies that have emerged to address this aspect, such as polyvagal theory, somatic experiencing, and sensory-motor psychotherapy.

“I found over time that as a psychoanalyst that it wasn’t enough to just work with the psyche. I also had to help people’s bodies recover, and this is without any touch. It’s understanding how trauma affects the body,” Jennings said.

The treatment techniques used by McCarthy also address the nervous system. He believes this new understanding of treatment is actually a rediscovery of ancient knowledge.

“It’s about looking at human beings holistically, and having people partake in things that move the trauma and emotion out of the body,” McCarthy said.

Building Resilience

Trauma can stem from unexpected hardships of life, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or a violent encounter. But McCarthy says a big part of healing is confronting the collective influences of tiny traumas that are part of our modern lifestyle. He says the more we can keep these little things under control, the better we can manage the big stuff.

“People don’t want to talk about this, but all of these things are accumulating in the DNA and the organs. If your body is inundated with high levels of toxins, exposure to Wi-Fi, a bad diet, and other things that are constantly applying pressure at the DNA level, it’s a silent trauma,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy tailors his treatments to suit each individual, but he says there are basic things we can all do every day to lessen our own burden of these hidden traumas. Doing so allows us to better handle any event we may encounter.

Similar to how a body that is malnourished is more vulnerable to illness, a mind that is never calm is more affected by trauma.

He recommends that people concentrate on breathing: specifically doing it in and out of your nose, rather than your mouth. This will lead to slower, deeper breaths. He says this small adjustment can calm your vagus nerve, and help deactivate the fight or flight response.

Another unexpected stress-busting factor is diet. McCarthy explains that the digestive tract is integrated with the vagus nerve, which means our digestion may have more to do with how we respond to life than we realize.

“If your digestive tract is off, your brain is off,” he said. “Avoid chemicals and preservatives, and you will have a foundation for dealing with something.”

Jennings recommends that people regularly seek activities that can help them slow down—like meditation, yoga, or listening to some soothing music. Activities that allow us to find a slower pace can help us become more aware of what we feel and what we need.

“Find opportunities for quiet reflection,” she said.

Both Jennings and McCarthy recommend a connection with nature.

A growing body of research shows that a simple walk in the woods has numerous benefits for our mind and body, including boosting our immunity and enhancing our creativity. And you don’t need much to make a difference. A study from Cornell University published in the January issue of Frontiers in Psychology found that as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting can help people feel happier and lessen the effects of both physical and mental stress.

“There’s no form of stress that being in nature doesn’t help. It touches everything,” McCarthy said.

Another tip toward lessening your traumatic burden is to find someone to talk to when you start to get overwhelmed—a trusted friend, spouse, or coworker.

“It is human to sometimes feel overwhelmed. And it’s equally human to sometimes need another human being to step in and help when that is so,” Jennings said.

Jennings adds that it’s important that we extend this humanity to people of service.

“I think it’s helpful for people to be mindful of the narrative of the hero. We can be grateful for people who go above and beyond, but also recognize their humanness. We need to recognize when they are being impacted by a difficult situation,” she said.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner