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Reprograming Your Negative Brain

Last week I wrote about ways to combat the emotional, mental and physical toll that comes with a career focused on helping others. I mentioned, in the blog, that I wanted to create an entire post around one of the most effective weapons in your coping skills arsenal. But before I go on, let's recap.

A little research is in order. According to the CDC, there are multiple tags for the real experience (secondary trauma, vicarious trauma) which has even now been added to the DSM-5 as part of the cluster of Trauma and Stressor related disorders. The CDC defines Vicarious Trauma as:

  1. The emotional residue of exposure to traumatic stories and experiences of others through work; witnessing fear, pain, and terror that others have experienced; a pre-occupation with horrific stories told to the professional (American Counseling Association, 2016)

  2. Sometimes referred to as “secondary traumatization, secondary stress disorder, or insidious trauma” (ACA, 2016)

  3. ▪ Vicarious Trauma is not the same as “burnout”

As I pointed out last week, anyone who takes on the burden of another's trauma day in and day out by listening to them, helping them, guiding them....will experience some emotional "shrapnel". How much and how often depends directly on their self-care regimen, their ability to recognize when their buckets are empty and their resilience building tools.

Don't despair if you are a new social worker, therapist, special education teacher, etc and you are reading this. Don't quit and go back to school for computer science. If you are like me, it would drive you crazy to not be around and helping other people. i don't write this to scare you only to inform you of the "cost of caring." Being able to recognize your own signs of compassion fatigue or secondary trauma is a great weapon to wield. By building up your resilience now, you will be more equipped to combat the fatigue when it comes.

Building resilience is all about fortifying yourself, creating a shield, if you will, of positivity that can reprogram your brain.

That's right I said reprogram your brain.

Your brain is pre-programmed to protect you. Every experience you have had since birth has been stored, catalogued and interpreted by your brain. As with our clients who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences, their brains have created the "flight, fight, freeze or fawn" triggers. Even in areas of their life where there is no threat, the brain ignites fear or anxiety into them, which causes a reaction of their trauma response.

But what if you were not subjected to early trauma? Well, your brain still operates in the protection mode. A good example is when you are absorbing stories and experiences from those who have been abused or neglected, your brain may tell you to shut off your empathy. Or maybe just to stay in bed today so you don't have to face more trauma stories. Maybe your brain tells you that those whom you love, don't need your time... because the families you serve need you more. Maybe your brain will even tell you that you don't need to try so hard because you don't really make a difference.

Do any of this sound familiar? Do you come home from work with a burger and fries and plop down in a chair in front of the television? Are you shutting out those who need you because you don't have any more to give? I know that some of these are extreme examples, but they can happen.

What can you do? How can you build resilience? How can you reprogram your brain?

It just so happens that I know a very simple but way-cool tool that I have used with hundreds of clients. I have professionally observed over the years that this practice actually works in those who commit to daily practice. What is this way-cool tool?


Yes, that's right.


Wait! Isn't that some hippy, New Agey, voodoo stuff? I mean it is super awkward and embarrassing.

Don't take my word for it, despite having seen it work on over a hundred clients who were experiencing self-doubt, low self-esteem and yes, vicarious trauma. Look at the science.

According to positive psychology. com: There is MRI evidence suggesting that certain neural pathways are increased when people practice self-affirmation tasks (Cascio et al., 2016). If you want to be super specific, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—involved in positive valuation and self-related information processing—becomes more active.

Positive affirmations have been shown to actually create new neural pathways in your brain, which, in fact, can re-program those negative impulses into positive ones.

So how does one begin doing affirmations?

First, you need to create your list. When working with clients, I tell them to think of things they wished they believed about themselves and write them down. We, then, take that list and create a list of affirmations for them to repeat daily. I suggest taping them to your mirror. Saying them while looking in the mirror jump starts your brain's attention span because you are using several senses: seeing, hearing, speaking...

Research says that it takes about 10 weeks to rewire your brain, but it does work, if you commit to the exercise.

Some examples of affirmations are:

  1. Today I choose to find at least one thing that brings me joy, or makes me smile

  2. I am proud of my accomplishments and I make a difference

  3. I am surrounded by people who love me and support me

  4. I believe in myself and refuse to give up on me

  5. I will let go of what I think my life should look like and celebrate its amazing reality

  6. I can do anything I believe in

  7. I am strong, confident, and courageous.

  8. I am confident that things will work out even if I am struggling now

  9. Every experience feeds my self-growth

  10. My energy is too precious to waste on stress, anxiety and overthinking

  11. I will focus on things I love to get me through this

You get the gist. Affirmations are very personal to the person developing them.

Challenge: Make a list of things you struggle with, especially around your own beliefs about yourself, your competence and your happiness. Recreate those items into positive affirmations. Commit to repeating the positive affirmations at least once a day (preferably while looking in the mirror). Yes, it feels super awkward at first, but that feeling will go away as you continue the practice. Give yourself 10 weeks and see if you are not becoming more resilient every day.

Pour into yourself a measure of positivity and watch the outcome.

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