skip navigation
Good Samaritans Volunteers Helping Victims Program Handbook and Training Guide
Top navigation About This Guide Message From the Director Acknowledgments About the Authors Related Links
Photo: Man and woman looking out of a broken window.

Publication Date: April 2009

minus iconFilling a Void—Origins of the Program
minus icon
minus icon
minus iconVolunteers: Recruiting,
Screening, and Training

minus icon
minus icon
minus icon
minus iconModule 2: The Victim Experience
minus iconModule 3: Basic Skills for Volunteers
minus icon

minus icon

Module 5: Self-Care

Managing Your Own Stress

Just as doctors are admonished, "Physician, heal thyself," volunteers must take care of their own psychological well-being, especially those who assist crime victims in times of crisis.

The work you do as a volunteer crime victim assistance provider is important to your community. But the same caring and empathy that motivated you to become a volunteer crisis intervenor can also make you vulnerable to a phenomenon called compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma.

You can continue to be effective in this vital work only if you learn to recognize and deal with the symptoms of severe stress before you become a victim, too.

What Is Stress?

Stress is nothing more than a response to change. And, as we all know, change is inevitable. Our response to stress manifests itself in our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and in our bodies. Stress itself is neither good nor bad—it is just a part of life.

Then What's the Big Deal?

Stress becomes a problem when there is too much of it ... or too little! A certain amount of stress increases performance. Too much stress, however, decreases performance and too little leaves one feeling bored and unmotivated. Excessive stress also makes one susceptible to the so-called stress-related diseases: heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, or even emotional problems such as depression.

What Does Stress Have To Do With My Health?

The biological response to stress is complex and has its roots in the "old" brain. That is the part of the central nervous system where instincts and autonomic functions reside. A threat of danger invokes a "flight or fight" response that prepares our bodies to respond to a life threat, such as being chased by a tiger. The "flight or fight response" is provoked when brain chemicals such as adrenaline are pumped into the bloodstream to spread quickly throughout the body. Blood pressure and heart rate increase. Blood flow to the large muscles increases, while blood flow and oxygen levels to functions that the body does not need for the flight or fight response, such as digestion, diminish so that more blood and oxygen reaches the heart, lungs, and muscles. When limited to emergencies, the effect of these chemicals wears off over time, but as with any machine, constant wear and tear takes its toll. The more frequently and intensely the stress response is invoked, the greater the wear and tear on our bodies.

Back to Top

I Don't Do Dangerous Things. What Does That Have To Do With Me?

The nature of "danger" has changed over the centuries from threats to our physical integrity to threats to our emotional integrity, identity, or economic security. The "old" brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat. In other words, we respond to thoughts and feelings in much the same way that we respond to the sight or sound of danger. The brain does what it is designed to do, without interpretation. The physiological effect on the body is pretty much the same.

If it Is All so Automatic, What Can I Do About it?

Remember that stress is a response to change, and in our world change comes fast and often furiously. By understanding the nature of the stress, planning for it, and accommodating our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to the situations we encounter in life, we can manage our stress, rather than allowing it to manage us.

What Is Involved in Managing Stress?

Stress management is a wellness approach with an emphasis on prevention. A good stress management plan includes self-assessment, developing coping strategies, improving physical health, changing perceptions, and promoting emotional health. The emphasis is on the whole person, rather than any single aspect of the person.

Back to Top

How Can I Tell if I Have a Problem With Stress?

Excessive stress has many cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms: difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in work, irritability, and headaches, just to name a few. People with too little stress are often bored and listless. A more complete list of stress symptoms is included in the self-assessment section that follows.

How Can I Tell Where My Stress Is Coming From?

The sources of stress are many and varied: the workplace, relationships, family obligations, the environment, finances, health problems, crime, and changing social mores. In fact, stress can come from almost anywhere. Many stressors are not within our span of control. Those types of stressors are often the most difficult to deal with. Identifying stressors is one of the crucial stages of developing a plan for managing stress.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Whether you call it compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or burnout, this condition often affects people who are in the role of helping others. It robs individuals of their zest for life, endangers their relationships, and is detrimental to their health. Compassion fatigue arises from a combination of lack of self-care and over involvement.

Back to Top

How Do I Know if I Have Compassion Fatigue?

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include—

  • Physical: fatigue, physical exhaustion, sleep difficulties, and somatic problems such as headaches, colds, flu, and ulcers.
  • Emotional: irritability, anxiety, depression, and guilt.
  • Behavioral: aggressiveness, callousness, pessimism, defensiveness, and cynicism.
  • Work-Related: quitting the job, poor work performance, absenteeism, and tardiness.
  • Interpersonal: perfunctory communication with others; inability to concentrate on relationships; withdrawal from family, friends, or coworkers; and dehumanizing others.