‘Trauma is sticky’: Emotionally Demanding Research and Mindfulness-Based Resilience
by Jana Jankuliaková
Sitting and staring. Staring and sitting. Hours and days were passing by and I was sitting at my desk and staring at images of drawings and photographs depicting physically and psychologically traumatised men involved in the First World War. These two activities became a part of my everyday experience during the first year of the pandemic. I felt paralysed and unable to write a single concise paragraph of my thesis. I felt desperate, helpless and tight like a piece of tightly woven twine.
While I have always found my research challenging due to its sensitive nature, in the first two years of my studies I was predominantly preoccupied with the questions of ethical and sensitive communication of my research. I am aware that inattentive and insensitive presentation of the materials addressing war trauma could upset and potentially harm my audiences. Despite these challenges, I considered myself lucky, because I managed to maintain a healthy work-life balance and I did not notice any impacts of the research on my wellbeing. I always managed to close my laptop and research materials at the end of the day and stop thinking about them.
This had changed dramatically during the pandemic. My kitchen suddenly became by office and while I took the images off the wall at the end of the day, I still felt surrounded by them – they seemed to trickle into my body and mind. I often found myself sitting and crying as I was studying men’s accounts of war trauma. The men's suffering and pain suddenly became too close physically and psychologically. My mind started to create links between images of wounded men lying on hospitals beds and COVID-19 patients in the news coverage. I felt like I could not look and read about more suffering and pain, they felt omnipresent and unescapable in both my professional and personal life. I kept asking, 'What is happening to me?', 'Why I am so unproductive, so emotional?', ‘Why is there so much suffering in the world?’ I realised that my thought patterns were unhelpful, but I could not stop thoughts whirling and entangling in my head.
Then it struck me one day – 'trauma is sticky'. I remembered psychologist Kate Mollison’s words at the SGSAH 'Confronting Shadows: Mindful and Ethical Communication of Sensitive Content' training event, who spoke about vicarious trauma. At the time of the training I thought this could not happen to me. And suddenly, there I was, trauma had stuck to me and I could not shake it off. I sought help. I tried counselling and various time-management and self-motivation techniques, but nothing quite helped.
One day I came across a funded 'Mindfulness Based Resilience' course designed to help people cope with COVID-19 related stress. I was doubtful and biased at first. 'I cannot sit still cross-legged for even five minutes and I definitely cannot empty my mind', I thought. But I gave it a try and oh, how wrong I was! Through the course I discovered that mindfulness is not about emptying the mind and pushing thoughts aside. I learnt that through mindfulness practice I can create a safe distance from my thoughts and emotions and see them more clearly - in this way they do not affect my body. I no longer feel as though I am a piece of tightly woven twine; the individual fibres loosened and I could breathe through them freely. I noticed that when I observe my thoughts and emotions for a while rather than fight them, they come and go, and I no longer get entangled in them. I learnt that mindfulness can be a useful tool for training attention, which can be placed where we need it most in a particular moment. The notoriously tedious ‘Body Scan’ practice, which involves gradual scanning of all body parts and noticing body sensations has become my best friend, as it helps me recognise the first warning signs of tiredness, tension or emotional overwhelm. More generally, mindfulness practice helps me identify my limits and reminds me that if I want to have the physical and emotional strength to continue reconstructing men's accounts of war trauma and to finish my research, I need to take care of myself and prioritise my wellbeing. I realise mindfulness is not a magic wand and I appreciate it is not suitable for everyone, but for me the course represented a transformational experience.
This experience prompted me to undertake a mindfulness teacher training. My aspiration is to offer trauma sensitive mindfulness courses to researches who may struggle as I did. Because, yes, trauma is sticky. We may not be aware of it slowly sticking to us until we start to feel physically and emotionally unwell. Mindfulness can offer useful self-care tools and coping mechanisms and help us navigate through the challenging terrain of the emotionally demanding research more skilfully.
Jana Jankuliaková is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of Glasgow. Her research examines representation of war trauma and pain in the works of German Expressionist artists involved in the First World War. She is also a museum educator and mindfulness teacher trainee; she is particularly interested in the role of arts and culture in supporting wellbeing and tackling isolation. Follow her on Twitter at @JJankuliakova.