Musings in the Olive Grove

Trauma and the Activist


Front-line activism has the potential to expose the individual to psychological and physical harm. To do this work it is important for all involved, including the organisation to be trauma informed. 

Traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk captures, trauma exposed work brilliantly, “trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst.  You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see the resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger to our individual survival.  And in some ways, I don’t think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you also know that dark side of life.”  Not everybody wants exposure to the dark side of life, and some intentionally avoid it.  The activist however, is not content to skate along the surface and therefore the risk of developing symptoms of trauma can be high.  

A traumatic experience is one that is so overwhelming that it cannot be processed, digested and integrated. It has been described as the “hidden wound”, “the silent scream” and “thorn in the spirit.” Gabor Mate, trauma specialist states that “trauma is not what happens to you. It is what happens in you,” because the effects disturb the mind, body and soul. 

What makes trauma unique when compared to compassion fatigue and burnout is that the distressing event one is exposed to permanently changes attitudes and assumptions about the world. These experiences arrive unexpectedly, turn our world upside down whilst simultaneously shattering our beliefs of predictability and safety. Our personal narrative is changed plunging us into an existential despair where we question everything. 

Trauma can be experienced directly, for example, through physical assault, natural disasters and illness.  Vicarious trauma is the second-hand experience of trauma that stems from indirectly living the traumatic experiences of others.  For example, witnessing disturbing images, reading graphic reports of loss, devastation and cruelty, hearing stories that are disturbing to you.  Think about how you have been altered through your activist work.  Have you noticed any changes to your worldview, personal narrative, and sense of meaning?

Once we have faced the darker side of life nothing is ever the same again.  Loss and fear underpin the experience of trauma. Therefore, there is a deep sense of grief, that accompanies us after the incident and a hypervigilant anxiety running through our body fearing that the event will repeat itself. 

We are made in such an amazing way that our instinctual response to trauma is normal and protective. What are some of the symptoms of trauma?  This is not an exhaustive list. Traumatic events bring on a generalised feeling of despair, loss of meaning and trust in life and in the hope that things will improve.  Finding meaning and creating a supportive narrative go a long way in reducing feelings of anguish and hopelessness.  Isolation may develop through the belief that one no longer fits into what seems like a “normal” world for everyone else. 

Triggers of the event can be multi-sensorial. The re-experiencing of the event through flashbacks at unpredictable moments.  Physically, one may notice disturbance in sleep, such as nightmares, experience panic attacks, restlessness, physical aches and pains, gastrointestinal problems, appetite changes, and the development of chronic health issues.  These symptoms may develop if the trauma is not processed, digested and integrated.  We must remember that our psyche is responding in a natural way protecting us from abnormal and overwhelming events. These are signs of our humanity. Shame and negative self-judgement have no place here. Self-compassion is what is required. One size does not fit all regarding how the incident will leave us feeling, because numerous factors are at play, including our personal and generational trauma history. 

Activist organisations have a duty of care to their participants to be trauma informed.   It is imperative after a traumatic incident that members are offered critical incident debriefing, a form of psychological first aid as soon as possible.  This debriefing is aimed at normalising symptoms, reducing any feelings of isolation, and restoring individual and group recovery.  

If you have been exposed to events of a traumatic nature and are experiencing disturbing symptoms ask for help. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung reminds us “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” Asking for support is an act of self-compassion and healing is a gift to you and those around you.

Recent Musings

How do you Greet the Day?

Greeting the day in my garden has become a valued ritual each morning. ...

Is there an Imposter in the House?

Throughout my professional career, I have had the privilege of hearing the stories ...

Embracing Darkness: The Transformative Power of the Shadow

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you ...

The Spiritual Legacy of Enheduanna and Inanna: Honouring Ancient Wisdom

The stories of Enheduanna and Inanna, two remarkable figures from ancient Mesopotamia, offer ...

Cultivating Connection: Exploring the Intersection of Eco-Spirituality and Shamanism

Eco-Spirituality is a term that has gained increasing recognition in recent years.  It ...

From Ancient Myth to Modern Inspiration: The relevance of Inanna for Women Today

The myth of Inanna is one of the most ancient stories that have ...

Share This Post