Self-Care & Sign Language Interpreters: 8 Ways to Ease Trauma

June 14, 2017

The work of a sign language interpreter requires patience, compassion, flexibility, and a heart of service. Breana Cross Hall provides some tips for self-care to help keep the work more sustainable.

You know what it’s like: you show up to an assignment or accept a call that, in the beginning, seems to be going one direction and suddenly takes a turn. You come out of the interaction feeling shaken, disoriented, sad/troubled/frustrated, and are scheduled to make your way to the next.

This is the life of a sign language interpreter.

We are charged with bearing witness to some of life’s greatest beauty and deepest pain, all while maintaining a stance of neutrality and flexibility. As Babetta Popoff said during a presentation on Compassion Fatigue,  

“We are first responders, who cannot respond.”

What can we do to care for ourselves after these difficult situations so that we can continue to do our job in integrity and alignment the next hour, day, and year?

[View post in ASL.]

Here are eight ideas to add to your toolbox:

Shake it off. Literally, shake your whole body. The reptilian part of your brain (think fight or flight) is able to release and reset by shaking. Watch any dog who’s just been in a tussle, you’ll see. Find a private-ish, quietish space (bathroom, VRS station, broom closet), and shake from head to toe, every part of your body that’s able to move. While you’re at it, do some deep forceful exhales and add a little vocalization to them.

Tune in. Sitting or standing in a comfortable position, close your eyes. Take a few deep, slow, easy breaths, and start to notice what happens in your body when you imagine the stressful scenario you just witnessed. Maybe your stomach or jaw tenses up, maybe your heart starts to race, maybe you feel a sinking feeling in your chest or a lump in your throat. Whatever it is, just notice it and let it be there without trying to avoid or resist it.

Take an emotional inventory. Name any emotion that’s present (keeping a feelings list in your bag can be helpful when you’re working on taking better care of yourself). Before you skip over this one, claiming it’s woo-woo fluff, hear me out: these emotions are present in you, whether you name them or not. They are there, sitting like a lump of coal in your stomach. They are the cause of chronic stress which leads to burnout and eventually to disease. Dis-ease: being without ease in the body. This is important stuff, friends. Naming these emotions allows us to get one step closer to dealing with them above-board, which then allows us to truly release them and do our jobs well.

Taproot. Here’s where we find the juicy stuff, the gold at the end of the rainbow if you will. It might not seem like it right now, but trust me. Once you name an emotion, dig down to its root where you’ll find a belief. Make a list of the beliefs that are at the root of your emotions. For example: say I was feeling despair and a disturbing pit in my stomach. I might dig down and realize that I’m feeling this way because I believe no one should be treated the way I just witnessed a human being treated. That belief is at the root of my feeling so yucky. You might uncover your beliefs by tuning into the narrator in your brain who’s interpreting the events around you. By bringing these beliefs out into the light, you are able to work with them and decide consciously whether you want them in your operating system or not.

Get out your magnifying glass. Start asking questions about these beliefs, from the perspective of a curious observer. You’re on a quest to discover more about yourself and the way you view the world. This information is infinitely important as a sign language interpreter (our lens/filter/bias/judgments affect our interpretations greatly) AND infinitely important to you as a human who values happiness and health. As you poke around, just make note of your findings. No need to shift or change or do anything about this information yet. Just notice. Some of the questions you may ask yourself at this point:

  • Is this belief true? Is it true all the time, in every situation, for everyone?
  • Is this the way reality works? Can I find evidence that my belief is always upheld in reality? Or is it just the way I wish that reality worked?
  • Is this thought peaceful or stressful? Pure and simple. Am I feeling peace while holding this belief within the context of this situation, or am I feeling stress?
  • Whose business is it? There are three options: it’s my business (I have control over it), it’s another person’s business (another person has control over it), or it’s God/nature/reality/universe’s business (no single human has control over it).

Nancy Berlove says in Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

Honest self-inquiry begins when there is a willingness to look at whatever comes up. An opportunity arises when a certain personal trait or habit becomes apparent. At a particular moment, something that I did, thought, or said makes me question my behavior or habit. In bringing my attention to this behavior, I see it more clearly. Recognizing it changes my understanding of the behavior and of myself. It is possible that, over time and with continued attention, the behavior will shift or even be replaced with something more congruent with my sense of self.

Hold compassion for yourself. This is a step that can take lifetimes to master but humor me. Every time you flex this muscle, whether or not you sense any movement, you’re strengthening the neural pathway towards greater happiness and health. One way I do this is by naming my feelings and needs in a tender way, as one might talk to a hurt child. For example: “Wow, Breana, you’re really feeling upset about this person being treated this way. That feels really disorienting and disturbing to you. You wish no person on the planet would ever have to be treated this way.” All of this, with my inside voice, to just be really present and caring with what I’m experiencing. Sometimes, similarly to children, a bit of compassionate listening and empathy can do wonders. We can do that for ourselves!

Take a detoxifying bath. My recipe is equal parts Epsom salt and baking soda, in the hottest water you can stand, with a few drops of tea tree essential oil. This allows your body to move toxins and release them. Make sure you drink plenty of water!

Find gratitude. It’s been a long day. You really rode this wave of discomfort all the way to the shore, and now you’re back on solid ground. Find whatever you can name to be thankful for right now: the soft bed supporting your body, the family or friends who care, the way you showed up for yourself and others today in the midst of difficult emotions. Whatever it is, claim it. Receive it. Don’t let any of that sweetness and beauty escape you. These are the gifts that are yours to cherish. These are the drops that refill your cup, so you can show up tomorrow ready to give again.

What fills you up when work threatens to take you down?

Questions for Consideration

  1. What do you do to care for yourself after a traumatic job?
  2. What are the barriers to healthy processing after difficult assignments? Why don’t we do this more often?
  3. What are the impacts to ourselves and our clients when we don’t deal with our own trauma and difficult emotions after an assignment?
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So timely. You have no idea. Thank you.


I LOVE this article- have already shared with multiple people. I am getting my journal out right now to try some of this work. Thank you!!!

Lynne-Anne McGrail
Breanna this article is awesome! At a time when we are becoming more and more stressed either in our own personal lives or vicariously through others, self-care is of utmost importance! These steps outline a beautiful way to let-go and release all that is built up inside. Along side these powerful tips, I use a visualization process that includes me imagining a soft loving breeze swirling around me that captures all the energy from the experience and lifting it up into the universe, blessing it. Then surrounding all those involved in a golden white light that’s radiated with love. For… Read more »
Great article! I have worked in many fields- VRS, VRI, medical, and we interpreters are often forgotten when it comes to our emotions. We are taught to keep a stiff upper lip. The trauma builds and weighs us down, until we experience burn out- we often cease all self care, much to our detriment. I have a few interpreter friends, we often be get together and share our war stories- talking in generalities about what is occurring in our practices is healing and beneficial- group mentoring and debriefing is often a much needed resource that many interpreters don’t take advantage… Read more »

Sorry for the typos!! I thought I had proofed it!

Teresa Sedano

This is such a wonderful article with easy tips for self care! Thank you for bringing it to our awareness is a compassionate and loving way. Truly lovely!

Teresa Sedano

oops, I meant to say “in” 😉

Janice Gorenflo

The day I read this, I got an intense VRS call that hit too close to home. I am working through these steps as well as seeking other avenues of help. Thank you so very much. Grateful for this and supportive colleagues.

David Duarte

While UCONN is in session, I love to take my pair of great pyrenees (big white fluffy dogs) to campus and walk around. It’s great to be at my alma mater, and so many students pet my dogs, which makes them smile, which makes me smile, and the dogs love the attention. It really recharges my batteries.


Brianna – I would like to ask permission if I can use your content in a workshop re workplace self-care? I work at SAFE DeafSHARE – Outreach/Educator. Could you email me at

Rebecca Roa

Karen Green
A brilliant article, thank you. Here in the U.K. we are just starting to get the message out there about Professional Supervision. I was in the first cohort of interprets training to become qualified supervisors and the second cohort is now in session. It is a safe and structured place to allow interpreters to discuss and explore issues that come up for them during their working lives. Many of the professionals we work alongside have supervision which is often mandatory, but the interpreting profession does not. Hopefully as Professional Supervision gets better known and used, interpreters will be better equipped… Read more »

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