8 things that no one taught you about helping people with aha-moments, and without burnout

Oh the psychology! In March, after going through a deep state of shock and “adopting” a family from Kharkiv, I started volunteering to help Ukrainians seeking refuge in Austria as well as those passing through. At the main train station in Vienna, later at the registration center (Austria Center Vienna) and the arrival center, and sharing infos and ways to take action all along. So, here a first part with some learnings that no-one taught you about before – about your emotions, working with traumatised people (without some degree in social work) and the superpowers of sandwiches. Yes, sandwiches and other 3D stuff.

The info mentioned is mostly taken from two group counselling sessions, via Caritas and the UKR/RU-speaking volunteer group at the arrival center. Previously published on Instagram. Disclaimer: I’m a volunteer translator not a psychologist. A psychotherapist leads the sessions in the arrival center.

#1 – War traumatises everyone, period. Also you, especially if you’re helping. What you forget of your experiences is what needed to be forgotten, group counselling with a psychotherapist helps to deal with the rest. And also talking about the things that went well. Share those stories! A friend of mine has been doing a great job on this, sharing stories from the arrival centre via social media. Yesterday I read somewhere „we laugh to not cry“, that’s so true.

#2 – Where do your emotions come from? How do you deal with feelings of guilt? Be confident that you did what you could. Your work is a gift, and you’re helping – not saving. Remind yourself of your key role and tasks, why you’re here, and how whenever you made a mistake or felt like you didn’t do enough you gave the best you could. Most importantly, you were there. Be aware that you’re affected by the emotions of people you’re helping, here mainly helplessness and (survivor’s) guilt. Helplessness is the most frightening emotion of all, and we’re taking action to deal with it (I’ve met many Ukrainians who started volunteering in Vienna shortly after escaping here). The guilt you feel is not only your guilt!! Keeping a professional distance, also physically, helps to not get carried away by the emotions of the client. Take the responsibility to regulate the situation. Respect your own boundaries.

#4 When clients keep asking you to repeat the same information over and over again, there’s more than a simple answer to why this happens (obviously they’re not stupid)): Some are under shock, eye movements are a good indicator. In this case repetition & writing down of info step by step (!) is needed, cause they cannot fixate what they heard. Beyond the cases of shock, especially people who arrive alone are actually asking for human contact not information. For them, talking to someone can lead to the feeling of safety, of „normality“ after escape with nobody to connect to and no moment to make sense of anything. Asking volunteers from they come from etc. supports the feeling of safety by „knowing“ where you are and who you’re talking to. It takes time to digest all their experiences, so while listening to an answer and reflecting about it they may be using the space to do exactly that. We’re advised to give reassurance, cause Austria isn’t heaven but it’s a safe country, with different structures providing help and experience with refugees. We voice these positive messages in conversation.

#5 – Grounding is so important – and a sandwich can help in that! Here’s how: in a situation of shock and high cortisol the person needs to hold on onto something physical (be it food, a drink or a flyer – not enough to have all info online also for this reason). Asking the client to breathe from their stomach can also help. Clarity always calms down, especially if it’s something printed out and coming from official entities.

#6 – The work of reflecting on your stress and why/how you got yourself into such a big one is shifted, is postponed to a moment after the stress. You cannot look at a thing while you’re still lost inside of it, and this means that having psychological counselling/debriefing on site will be limited by one‘s small mental resources in that moment. Get away from volunteering to think about volunteering and to exchange experiences with colleagues/friends. 👉

#7 – All of this has been a school of life in staying calm and self-confident, in keeping a professional distance, helping without solving everything for a person (and thus reminding oneself that one is there to help the most people in need possible), but still taking the time to talk & listen and independently solve problems without rushing. Easier said than done. And…sometimes a connection to a person emerges – this can be beautiful but also brings a challenge to staying in one’s role and protecting ourselves.

#8 – Develop a healthy sense of egoism. After a phase of shock and frantic helping we’re now psychologically in a phase of adaptation to this new reality. We know it’s going to be a marathon – not a sprint, and we need to take care of ourselves and our problems with emotional stability, take breaks and take up some if our previous (leisure) activities again. Mental hygiene us the prio nr.1. We’re all humans with limited resources. Listen to your signals of overwhelm. Divide your capacity for help in bits and don’t convince yourself to do more than you’re able to. You’re allowed to get REST. If you’re feeling angry and furious, then your instincts of self-protecting has been activated. You don’t have to carry the „backpack of responsibility“ alone. Be a 100% present and then give the backpack to the next person to take over.