By Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy, Founder AMIGA Lawyers

As immigration attorneys, we know that secondary trauma is very real. We are exposed on a daily basis, usually several times a day, to the trauma that our clients have suffered. Our clients look to us for strength while they are breaking down. Oftentimes, we carry the weight of leading someone through a story that he has never told in his life, cutting open scars that never fully healed. As attorneys we are not equipped to give our clients tools on how to cope with the unresolved psychological and emotional issues that come along with speaking of their personal traumas. Even worse, we ourselves are not equipped to deal with how these traumas affect us by way of secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, or secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  

I recently attended The Trauma Stewardship Institute’s conference and it was eye-opening. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky founded the Trauma Stewardship Institute after working for trauma victims for many years, including many people who had attempted suicide. She shared her experience of being on a hike with her family in Hawaii and looking out a viewpoint off the top of the mountain. While her family took in the view, she found herself wondering how many people had committed suicide by jumping off the cliff and how quickly a trauma team could come in. She believed her thoughts were so normal that everyone in her family must be thinking the same thing. This struck a chord for me and made me want to know more about not only what Secondary Trauma is, but how we can cope with this in our daily lives. My personal experience with this is extreme suspicion when people are around children and the constant thoughts that people are child molesters. I constantly scan play areas, trying to see if anyone is there who does not have a child with him, sure that I will spot a child molester in the crowd. I have worked with so many victims of child rape and molestation that it has converted into a huge fear and paranoia for me

Key Ways to Cope with Secondary Trauma:  

1. Pay Attention to Avoidance 

“Avoidance is a gift from the universe to show you how saturated [by trauma] you are. It exists to show you how close you are to the edge,” Laura said. If your best part of the day is when you don’t have to do whatever it is that you need to do, when you make that phone call and feel relieved when the person doesn’t answer, or if someone is 10 minutes late and you pray that he won’t show up are all examples of avoidance. If you finding yourself avoiding something, whether it is a type of case or a phone call or whatever it may be, it is an important time to take inventory of where you are and how are you feeling. Do you need to take a break? Is it time to take a few moments away from the computer and smartphones? Are there tasks that you could delegate?  

Trying to avoid certain work or tasks does not mean that you are a bad lawyer, mother, advocate, or anything else. Rather it is an internal sign that you are being affected by your work and it is important to check in and see what you need to do. In my case, I needed to take off to Mexico and enjoy the beaches of Cabo for a couple years… but that’s a story for another day. Now I realize how I needed to make a change sooner and avoidance was the number one sign.  

2. Connect with Creativity 

As we become experts in something, our creativity lessens. We become more rigid. We don’t want to do things differently because we are excellent at achieving results the way that we have always achieved them. Also, as experts, we become completely wrapped up in what we do. In a profession like ours, we are constantly helping people in need, whether we do business immigration, family-based immigration, or removal defense. Most of us immigration attorneys are a bit obsessed with our work. We love to talk about it. We love to think about it. We love to read about anything that is immigration related. We can find a link between almost any movie or song to our work, whether it is a client we worked with or an issue that’s wrong with the system. I personally find myself getting revved up when I listen to my reggae Pandora station and inspired by the message of taking on "the man" and racial and societal injustice. It is great that we love our jobs and that we are excellent at them, however we are meant to be creative beings and not just in a work-related way. 

The best, most effective way to connect with creativity is to be in nature. Ideally, we can incorporate nature into our lives in some way every day. Nature does not have one set definition and can be anything from going to a hike in the woods to walking in the open air in downtown to playing with your dog or other animals. Nature stimulates us to connect with our inner voice’s desire to create and the best ways to express our creativity. 

Most of us lawyers feel comfortable expressing ourselves through writing. Take 10 minutes to write something, anything, and leave perfectionism by the wayside. Some of us love cooking, some love making crafts, and some are Pinterest queens. Create without requiring perfection of yourself and let your creative juices run free. By allowing ourselves the freedom to pursue our creative passions, it will bring forth more creativity for our work. It forces us to let go of our narrow-minded work focus and bring out more sides of ourselves.  

3. Create a Daily Practice 

Determine something that you will do at least once every 24 hours. The purpose of this practice is to be acting intentionally and holding ourselves accountable to our well-being. A daily practice can consist of taking 10 minutes for a meditation, drinking a glass of calming tea before jumping in the car to go home, and/or coloring in an adult coloring book. Gratitude should also be a part of our practice every single day, giving thanks for our knowledge, for our clients, and for all of the personal and professional blessings that we have in our lives.  

4. Sweat It Out 

One of the key points of the conference was that each time we work with a victim of trauma, a significant amount of energy enters our systems by merely hearing about the trauma. If that energy is not expelled from our systems it metabolizes within our systems and can eventually make its way into our nervous systems having both physical and psychological effects.  

The energy that enters our bodies every time we hear about a trauma must be immediately released. The energy is like a wave that takes over our entire body. Perhaps if we were hit with one wave and then not exposed to trauma again for several months, the energy would find a way to work itself out of our bodies. However, most of us are hit with wave after wave after wave throughout the day. 

At the end of the meeting, hearing, interview, or whatever it may be where you are consuming the trauma, take 10-15 minutes to walk and move your body. Do a few jumping jacks or crunches. This is important to do with your entire team. Last week we implemented this in my office. After a particularly difficult meeting, we decided to do 10 pushups and 10 vinyasas. It does not sound like much but it made a huge difference.  

As advocates we need to be strong for our clients, emotionally and mentally. Laura states that every single day, we must find a way to sweat and raise our heartrates. This is key to our own health in general, but it is also important because of the amount of trauma to which we are exposed on a daily basis. The best remedy is a lunchtime workout or exercise routine. I know you are asking yourself, “What lunchtime workout? I don’t even eat lunch!” However, I decided to put it to the test. Now at my firm we are attempting to walk 23 flights of stairs (up and down so 46 in total) in our building at least 3 times a week. So far it is making the afternoon more productive for myself and my staff and raises the energy level in the office. I do not like sweating, but I am accepting the challenge! 

5.  Check In About Addictions 

Addiction is a tricky word because it triggers images of drugs, alcohol, and technology; however it is important to check in about additions that are harder to see. For example, an addiction to criticizing others, to being needed, to caffeine, to Facebook, or to being busy. Laura calls for a 24 hour fast from: caffeine, sugar, highly processed food, adrenaline, and nicotine. How does the thought of abstaining from these things make you feel? Even if you do not take the challenge of 24 hours of abstinence, it is worthwhile to check in and see if there is anything that you are using to “numb out” at the end of the day or at the end of the week. If there is anything, it is important to check in with yourself to determine what you can work on and if there is anyone who could/should help you.  

I personally quit sugar 3 months ago. I check every single label now for any sugar or sugar-like products. I have more energy than I have ever had in my life. I thought “I could never quit sugar.” Just like I said, “I could never be a vegetarian.” (I am now vegetarian/vegan for 4 years.) When I realized that it was more about mindset than anything else, I was able to make the big changes. It wasn’t that I couldn’t quit sugar, I just didn’t want to quit sugar. When I had that realization, I tried to give it a try and I haven’t missed sugar ever since.  

Stay tuned for much more information and many more tips on this topic! 

In the meantime, I strongly suggest that you check out the Trauma Stewardship Institute and the incredible work that Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is doing. You can find more information at Laura holds conferences throughout the United States. 

About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:

Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.