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Toolbox Tip: Transition Rituals Transmission Fluid for the Brain

Contributing Authors: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair with Andrew Laue, L.C.S.W.

Do you ever come home after a long day at the office and just feel a little heavy, kind of off? Your day wasn’t particularly bad on the prosecutor scale, so you mentally run through your line-up of victim meetings, interviews and hearings. You can’t quite pinpoint what is causing the pit in your stomach and, even though you are home and supposed to feel joy, this disquietude is weighing you down like an invisible radiation blanket.

The Resiliency Toolbox

Transition rituals are one of the many tools we keep in our resiliency toolbox. Like transmission fluid in the engine of your car, this tool facilitates gears shifts between work and home, and is a great way to practice keeping work where it belongs — at work.

In 2016, Andrew Laue, LCSW, a leading expert in secondary trauma, and I started a formal Secondary Trauma Group [STG] in my office and we’ve actively engaged in trauma education, secondary trauma prevention and organizational resilience since. The STG program has 4 facets:

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1. Intro to Trauma and Secondary Trauma;
2. Resiliency Group Processing;
3. Crisis Response and Debriefing; and
4. Vibrant Leadership Training.

During the six-month Resiliency Group Processing phase, we learn tools to help build resiliency and — not surprisingly — “keep” them in what we call our Resiliency Toolbox. The collection contains connection tools and awareness tools.

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Connection tools teach skills like mirroring and resonant listening, which we will discuss in greater detail in a future post.

Awareness tools teach us how to track our own stress cues in our body and use those cues to find and stay within The Window of Tolerance during the workday. Creating intentional space between work stress and home, a Transition Ritual, is one of the most effective of our Awareness skills. This skill has proven to be so universally beneficial that it ends up in every toolbox. The tools’ names have become familiar office vernacular for engaging in difficult conversations, noticing stressors, and sparking connection.

It isn’t uncommon to overhear a prosecutor ask co-counsel on a break in the middle of a child abuse trial something like, “Where are you in the window (of tolerance) right now?” meaning, ‘This is really hard stuff, even for the grittiest of prosecutors, and you look like you need a walk around the block.’

Having a common language for well-being encourages team members to acknowledge the challenges associated with wallowing in human tragedy and provides a recognizable signal for peers to easily step in with support.

What is a transition ritual?

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Photo credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash

A transition ritual in this context is an individualized, repetitive practice that marks a distinct, intentional separation between work and non-work. In a world where, because of advances/encumbrances in technology, we are literally on-call 24 hours a day, it is increasingly important to give our brains and bodies time to shift gears and draw more definitive lines around job-related pressures.

“Concentration and focus are renewable resources, but they need to be recharged,” clinical psychologist and coauthor of A Radical Guide for Women With ADHD Michelle Frank, Psy.D., tells SELF magazine. “It’s really important to give your brain time to reset and refocus throughout the day.”

Andrew Laue, L.C.S.W. and psychotherapist who specializes in implementing well-being and resiliency in organizations, explained the benefit of transition rituals:

The use of symbol and imagery is integrative at a neuro-level and can deepen meaningful visceral awareness that allows the worker the regularly release the material that is stored in her brain-body system.

I use the symbolism of the four elements of the natural world from classical mythology to help workers build individual transition rituals that are most effective for them.

An example would be a worker who identifies with the air aspect of the four elements and develops a transition ritual of driving home from work and purposely putting down the vehicle’s windows and allowing the air from outside to rush in, bringing sensory awareness to stress remaining in the body.

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Is transition ritual as simple as it sounds?

Yep. Intention and repetition are WD40 for a brain that is constantly shifting gears. In our group, transition rituals that have emerged vary in form and complexity.

One person uses an outdoor tub to take a bath after an especially challenging day and then watches the work stress “drain” with the water. A woman who specializes in child abuse and neglect drives over a bridge every evening on the way home and intentionally leaves the day’s suffering on the other side of the river. I need constant connection to the earth so every morning when I go out to feed my horses I plant my two feet on the ground (or snow this week) and pause to absorb the morning light on my favorite mountain before heading into the office or, since COVID and remote work, heading downstairs to my laptop and into the Zoom-chamber.

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Working remotely has elevated the importance of maintaining some intentional space between the aspects of our lives. Small changes, like leaving your device off or tucked away during dinner, not checking email after a certain time and defining separation from the office, even if it is only steps away.

If you haven’t already developed your own transition ritual, I encourage you to find something in your normal routine that symbolizes a shift in your day and reminds you to take a moment to pause and let your brain catch up with your schedule. Leave those burdens on the work-side of the river.

More reading:

Office of Violence Against Women’s Vicarious Trauma Toolkit

Unblending work and life — Get your head in the game by establishing transition rituals

Secondary Trauma Activates Resiliency Training

Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

Kirsten Pabst is the chair of NDAA’s Well-being Task Force, serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, and is serving her second term as the elected prosecutor for Missoula County, Montana

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The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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