I’ve been researching organised abuse for about ten years. Whether I’m in a professional or social setting, one of the most common questions that I’m asked is how I ‘cope’ with or ‘manage’ with emotional impacts of the research, particularly since I’ve been interviewing organised abuse survivors for a long time.
In this post, I want to reflect on how to make trauma-intensive research a sustainable professional practice. The available guidance on the conduct of trauma research is focused on minimising risk to research participants in accordance with overarching principles of human research ethics.
Working to ensure that research participants are not harmed in the course of the study is, of course, crucially important. However, for researchers who are committed to the study of trauma, the question of how to craft a larger program of trauma research (beyond a single study) is largely ignored.
Interpersonal trauma and violation are, necessarily, challenges to widely held assumptions about the orderliness of the world and the predictability of other human beings. How can researchers expose themselves to traumatic material over weeks, months and years without coming to experience the suffering reported by the people that we interview?
In my experience, making trauma-intensive research sustainable is not solely a methodological issue. Rather, it is an ethical undertaking, in which the research process involves the development and disclosure of clearly articulated frameworks of understanding and meaning that are capable of holding, and making sense out of, traumatic material and affect.
This involves, first and foremost, a process of self-reflection on behalf of the interviewer. We need to be clear to ourselves about why we are doing the research, and what we expect to get out of it. Trauma researchers may well find that they have developed outsized expectations of what research can accomplish for them, their participants or society at large.
A mismatch between what we want research to accomplish, and what it can reasonably achieve, will only lead to burnout. When I first started doing this work, I was given advice that I've never forgotten: 'This is a marathon, not a sprint'.
As difficult as it may be, particularly when faced with grievous injustice, we need to accept that change is often slow and incremental, and our work is just one small part of a much larger picture. At the same time, we should recognise and value the contribution that we are making.
Trauma fragments and disrupts systems of meaning, leading to feelings of nihilism and emptiness. This is true for witnesses, including researchers, as well as those more directly impacted. To counterbalance this, it's important that we, as trauma researchers, are clear to ourselves about the ethical commitments that underlie our research practice. We should continually renew those commitments against the potentially corrosive effects of trauma exposure.
These commitments will vary from person to person, and may be sourced from diverse philosophical, cultural or religious traditions. Personally, I've found the Buddhist understanding of compassion to be compelling, where compassion is defined as a wish to relieve suffering.
In the Buddhist tradition, this wish is formulated in a way that recognises our practical limitations (we are often unable to relieve the suffering we witness) but also exceeds those limitations, in the sense that we can still wish for others to be free from suffering even where we cannot accomplish this ourselves.
Formulated in this way, compassion provides an active way of being present with someone who is describing violence and grief that remains focused on the wellbeing of that person, while listening and responding to their testimony without being overwhelmed by it.
After interview work has taken place, compassion provides a structure of feeling and thinking that affirms the importance of that work, while still holding onto the recognition of the harm that has been inflicted on others.
There are a number of practical measures that we can put in place to ensure the sustainability of trauma-intensive research. Some trauma-exposed researchers are lucky enough to work in a trauma-informed workplaces, where the management of vicarious trauma is built into the institution, but most do not. Trauma researchers generally need to take responsibility for their own self-care. Below are four key points of advice:
Get professional supervision: I personally pay for monthly supervision sessions from a clinical psychologist. This gives me an hour in which to discuss what’s happening in the research and how it is impacting on my life.
- Mindfulness practice: There is no escaping the fact that trauma research has enduring effects on how we think and feel. It’s important to develop a mindfulness practice that assists in re-regulating your nervous system and promoting of a sense of emotional and physical wellbeing. This can include practices such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.
- Accept mistakes: Trauma research involves encounters with people and material that can be challenging and unexpected. It's healthy to recognise, and accept, that we will make mistakes as trauma researchers. At those times, we can take responsibility and try to learn from our mistakes without blaming or shaming ourselves.
- Connection: The experience of trauma is characterised by feelings of isolation and the severing of relations with others. Working with others in the trauma field opposes these feelings and creates a context of safety and connection. Join organisations or professional networks in the trauma field.
Finally, make sure that your life outside work feels more substantive and weighty to you than your life inside work. The ultimate goal of recovery from trauma is, in the words of Marsha Linehan, to find a ‘life worth living’. Researchers into trauma should make sure they are not compromising their own quality of life while they are helping trauma survivors to find theirs.