Helping people in their most vulnerable state is as much a taxing experience as it is a rewarding one. Increased awareness of the potential effects of working at the hospital or helpline may help you to understand or identify areas where the MindfulChoice℠ strategies can be effective.
Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright
Ethologists (scientists who study animal behavior) have agreed on four primal responses. The first, freezing, is associated with hypervigilance as it allows individuals to assess the situation. (This reaction evolved because predators are keener to detect moving objects.) The second and third responses are to flee and then to fight. If none of these responses have been effective, the final response is ‘fright’ or tonic immobility. Although medical professionals often see this sequence of reactions in the victims they work with, it is important to remember that stress is defined as “an elevation in a person’s state of arousal or readiness, caused by some stimulus or demand.” The stimulus of a person’s voice, words, or emotions may be enough to trigger this reaction in the hotline responder by eliciting fear. Fear is known to directly impact decision making, memory, objectivity, and more.
Tunnel Vision Effect (TVE)
Defined as “visual perceptual narrowing” (Godnig, 2003), tunnel vision effect occurs as a neurological, biochemical, hormonal, and behavioral reaction to extreme stress or traumatic experience (PTSD). It is likened to looking through a cylindrical tube–the individual is blind to everything that is not in their direct line of vision. However, researchers are investigating a similar effect on general cognition, insinuating that trauma may impact an individual’s ability to comprehend multiple pieces of information. Known to happen with crisis workers ranging from firefighters to police officers, this dangerous perceptual change impacts decision making.
In accordance with Daniel Kahneman’s landmark finding that “What you see is all that is there,” individuals experiencing tunnel vision do not have the capacity to see beyond the immediate moment. Just as a firefighter’s tunnel vision is triggered by the fight, flight or freeze reaction, you may experience the same effects. This means that the nurse or doctor who is experiencing high stress and tunnel vision may be unable to see alternative solutions to a problem. When the worker leaves his or her shift, the tunnel vision may continue, leading to issues in his or her personal life.
Vicarious trauma is the damaging effect a worker experiences after exposure to traumatic material from a client. Psychologists recognize that vicarious trauma can impair the workers’ sense of self and ‘could result in ongoing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), feelings of anger, grief, rage, and terror” (Michalopoulos and Aparicio,