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  • Writer's pictureAlison Giffen

Tackling Trauma with Resilience

TW/CW: This article includes a personal account of gender-based violence-related trauma. Please continue reading or stop reading with your own mental health care in mind.

Government RFP aiming to prevent gender-based violence in Central America. I did what I normally do. I opened up a new browser window and began to search for the latest GBV statistics from the region. Within a few minutes of reading, my thoughts were hijacked by memories from 2003 when I worked on an ex-combatant study in Sierra Leone, a country that was just emerging from a war marked by widespread sexual violence. As I continued to work on the assignment, my mind jumped between Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the many other places I’ve worked on the protection of civilians in conflicts where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. Every time the thoughts got too intense, I was able to take a break, take a deep breath, and refocus my thoughts on the positive work that could come out of the concept note I was writing.

As a business development professional, you may be asked to work on solicitations that involve GBV programming. As a result, you may be exposed to distressing GBV-related material or you may be concerned about the impact that the GBV programming will have on your colleagues and local partners implementing the project. There are steps that you can take to build personal resilience and to ensure that the entity you work for has integrated appropriate services to help safeguard you, your colleagues, and your local partners from vicarious trauma that can result from GBV work.

Vicarious Trauma Is An Occupational Hazard

You don’t have to directly experience GBV to be affected by it. If you have worked on proposals that involve GBV prevention and response, have you ever noticed changes in your behavior, mood, relationships, or view of the world? If so, these might be signs of exposure to vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma is an occupational hazard for anyone whose work exposes them to violence, deprivation, injustice, and other people’s suffering. Vicarious trauma tends to happen over time when someone is repeatedly witnessing or hearing about other people’s suffering or need or when they feel a commitment or a sense of responsibility to help. In other words, when we compassionately engage with the suffering of others - even on something as seemingly remote as a proposal involving GBV issues - we may experience vicarious trauma.

You may also be concerned about your colleagues and local partners that will implement the proposed GBV programs. GBV work is inherently stressful, and staff working on those projects are exposed to the trauma and suffering of others on a daily basis. You may have questions about how your organization can build in services to protect the psychological safety of those colleagues and partners as you develop the bid.

This may sound quite bleak. However, there are steps that I’ve learned from clinicians at the company I work for, The KonTerra Group (KonTerra), that you, as a business development professional, can take to:

Build your personal resilience when exposed to the suffering of others and

Advocate within your organization for integrated, appropriate services to help safeguard you, your colleagues, and your local partners from trauma, including vicarious trauma.

Individual Strategies

If you are working with distressing material in your job and are interested in building personal resilience, my colleagues at KonTerra would likely encourage you to say your ABCs:

  • Awareness;

  • Balance; and

  • Connection.

Awareness is about being attuned to and observing your needs, limits, signs of stress, and emotions. When we understand more about vicarious trauma and how it can influence us, we can become more conscious and aware of how we are reacting and coping. And when we monitor ourselves more effectively, we are better equipped to decide what we need at different points to help prevent and address vicarious trauma.

Some of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma include:

  • Disturbed sleep;

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches and unusual body aches;

  • Feeling irritable, angry, distracted, unable to focus without a clear reason;

  • Difficulty relaxing and winding down;

  • More feelings of sadness, grief, helplessness, hopelessness;

  • Increased use of substances such as alcohol and sleeping medication;

  • Increase in intrusive thoughts about distressing material;

  • Feeling cynical or guilty; and

  • Difficulty feeling connected to what is going on around and within you.

You can seek to maintain and regulate balance amongst activities (work, rest, and play) and your needs (physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual). Having healthy self-care routines in place and limiting exposure as you can are two important aspects of “balance.”

Connection is about connecting to yourself, others, and what is important to you. It is about maintaining these vital connections and restoring them when they get fractured or damaged. Connection is not just about connection with other people (although that is critical), it is also about connecting to sources of meaning, purpose, hope, refreshment, and perspective.

This tip sheet provides greater detail on vicarious trauma. If you are already experiencing any of the signs of stress or trauma reactions, you may want to seek help from a professional. You can explore if your employer offers an employee assistance program or if your health insurance covers mental health services.

Organizational Strategies

If the entity that you work for doesn’t provide appropriate services, you may want to explore steps that your organization can take to protect the mental health and resilience of you, your colleagues, and local partners working on GBV. KonTerra specializes in providing resilience and stress management services to international relief and development organizations and has worked extensively with organizations whose staff are regularly exposed to vicarious trauma. For over 15 years, KonTerra has provided psychosocial assistance to US federal government staff, as well as for staff of over 75 other international NGOs, commercial firms, and UN agencies. Through its global network of over 300 counselors and coaches, we provide individual and psychosocial support consultations for staff; assessments and consultations for organizations and leaders; training and learning opportunities; and critical incident response in over 50 languages. As an example, in this video, one of KonTerra’s clinicians, Marie-Adele Salem, provides background on the topic: "Considerations when working to address gender-based violence.”

If you are interested in learning more about KonTerra’s services related to vicarious trauma and GBV, please feel free to reach out to me (Alison Giffen, Senior Advisor, Business Development,

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