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Emotional and physical release is crucial for people working under stress, but controlled and long-term training is much better than drinking and partying, says a psychologist to aid workers

In July 1999 I was in Kosovo on my first assignment as a mental health officer. I was invited to a party that one of the humanitarian aid agencies was giving, mainly for expatriates. We were in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood where people had suffered massacres and very strong oppression for the last 10 years. The party had very big loudspeakers playing western music, a lot of dancing, alcohol and couples getting together.

I was pretty shocked. Why would we do this? Why we would we be so disrespectful, in the middle of an Islamic neighborhood, where people were trying to recover from a war?

In hindsight, the party reflected the needs of these expatriates who came to Kosovo and found a horrific situation. There were mass graves being opened, and stories of immense suffering and torture. People were trying to connect with each other in a non-professional environment, to relax by drinking alcohol and letting the tension out of their bodies with dancing and movement.

At the party I met an Albanian Kosovar who was interpreter for human rights work, and when I told her that I was a psychologist she broke down crying. In a corridor with people dancing and drinking around us, she cried and explained that her job was translating stories of war, torture and missing family members – things she had gone through herself in the past. As she translated she would sometimes start crying, and the expatriate she worked for would say, “well, if you can’t cope with this maybe you should quit your job.” But of course she couldn’t, because her whole family was financially dependent on her. She wanted to help tell the world what had happened to her society, but she was in need herself.

Hearing her reflecting on her feelings within the context of this party made me wonder how else aid workers could find ways of relaxing, getting the body moving and sharing, besides drinking alcohol until 5am. That’s where my interest in psychosocial support for aid workers started.

In the last 15 years aid agencies have recognised their staffs’ need for psychosocial support, but not many are meeting it, because few have the capacity. Even those that do can often only offer short training modules of one to four hours during induction programmes or short field visits. In the field, faced with the compelling and urgent needs of others, aid workers have less capacity to tune into their own needs.

There are very good mindfulness-based stress management courses than could help, but they take time – typically two-hours once a week for eight weeks. The idea is to go slowly enough to be able to actually realise what you are learning and build it into your daily life. But the daily life of aid workers is often not very stable, and always very time constrained. When they’re not in the field, they’re resting at home for just one month between deployments. Few can take two months off for mindfulness training.

That’s why the Garrison Institute in upstate New York created the contemplative-based resilience training. Incorporating secular meditation, yoga and movement, and psychosocial education, the material is specifically adapted for aid workers and covered in a four-day residential training that fits their schedules. Online forums keep participants connected to each other after the initial training, and they can access einforcing video, audio and documentary resources via an app on their phones.

Researchers will be formally studying CBRT’s effectiveness, but the anecdotal evidence so far – including my own experience teaching it and observing of what works for aid workers in the field – is that this kind of training could meet aid workers’ needs for connection, movement and physical and emotional release. That could be a great boon to individual workers, their organisations and the millions who benefit from their work.

Carla Uriarte is a clinical and social psychologist at the Garrison Institute

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