Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma: Awareness, Balance, and Creating Connections
Posted on 05/03/2017

Our community has experienced a lot of tragedies this past year. Through these tragedies, the power of “community” has truly been demonstrated by the compassion and help to those in need by everyone around. There have been teachers, principals, and mental health professionals that have provided assistance to those impacted by the tragedies. These events can create trauma for those directly involved, but can also impact those exposed to the trauma by working with those impacted, by hearing the stories, or by reading the stories. This phenomenon is called vicarious trauma.

What is vicarious trauma? According to the Association of Psychology, it is known as secondary trauma; it can be described as indirect exposure to a traumatic event through a first-hand account or narrative of the event. It is a process of change that happens because people care about other people who have been hurt and feel committed or responsible to help others. Why is this important you might ask? It is important because over time this process can affect a person and it can lead to changes in the person’s psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being. It changes how people start viewing the world around them.

People in the helping professions such as counselors, rescue workers, police officers, doctors, and teachers may be at risk of vicarious trauma. Any person who has a significant relationship with a survivor of trauma may be at risk. Think about a teacher who witnesses and hears about the impacts of trauma on his/her students. There have been times in which a teacher has more than one student being impacted by trauma. The therapists who helps this student learn how to manage emotions and behaviors and to process the student’s trauma are also at risk for vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma doesn’t occur after hearing of one event; it unfolds over time. It has a cumulative effect of contact with survivors of violence or disasters or people who are struggling in life due to different life issues. It happens because of the empathy felt by a person that is hearing the trauma. The person feels committed or responsible to help and, at times, the person cannot help. The sense of commitment and responsibility can eventually lead the person to feel burdened, overwhelmed, and hopeless during a time of need and suffering. It can also make the helping person overextend him/herself beyond what is reasonable or realistic.

A key component of vicarious trauma is changes in spirituality, which impacts the way the person sees the world and his/her sense of meaning and hope. How does this happen you might ask? At times the helping professionals will experience, to a lesser extent, the same feelings felt by those who have experienced the trauma directly and this might create a change in the way they view the world because their beliefs might be damaged or altered by repeated exposure.

Compassion fatigue or burnout are other concepts that share similarities with vicarious trauma. How do they differ? Compassion fatigue is the condition of emotional and physical fatigue that results when helpers feel compassion for those they help, but do not have adequate time away from caring for others to refuel and care for themselves. It differs from vicarious trauma in that it is not typically characterized by the presence of trauma-related symptoms and does not necessarily involve a change in one’s world view.

Burnout is a term sometimes used interchangeably with vicarious trauma, but this condition does not necessarily involve a traumatic element. People can experience burnout when they have a toxic work (minimum and/or no support) environment, when they feel themselves to be doing tedious or otherwise trying work without getting enough time for rest or appropriate self-care.

As mentioned before, those at risks are people who are in the helping professions, however it also impacts those people who tend to avoid problems or difficult feelings, blame others for their difficulties, or withdraw from others when things are hard. It also impacts people who have a history of trauma themselves. If the individual has added stress in other areas of their lives, if an individual has a lack of connection with a source of meaning, purpose and hope, someone who lacks a good social support, this places the individual at higher risk.

What are the symptoms of vicarious trauma?

People who experience vicarious trauma may respond differently and some might experience a range of symptoms. These symptoms can fall into five different categories: emotional, behavioral, physiological, cognitive, and spiritual symptoms.

Emotional symptoms

  • can include lasting feelings of grief, anxiety, or sadness. Some people may become irritable or angry, become distracted frequently, and/or experience changes in mood or sense of humor. A person might also begin to feel generally unsafe.

Behavioral symptoms

  • might include isolation, an increase in alcohol or substance consumption, altered eating habits, and difficulty sleeping. People experiencing behavioral symptoms of vicarious trauma may engage in risky behavior and avoid people or tasks, or they might find it difficult to separate work and personal life and may increase their workload.

Physiological symptoms

  • which affect physical well-being, can appear in the form of headaches, rashes, ulcers, or heartburn, among others.

Cognitive symptoms

  • may take the form of cynicism and negativity or lead to difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions in daily life. A helping professional may also find it difficult to stop thinking about the trauma experienced by a person in their care, even when not at work.

Spiritual symptoms

  • can include a loss of hope, a decreased sense of purpose, and feelings of disconnect from others and the world in general. People may lose sight of their life purpose or come to feel as if they are unworthy of love or do not deserve love.

Self-care is important when experiencing vicarious trauma. Being aware, having and creating balance, and staying connected can help to minimize difficulties and restore helpers in the four areas noted previously. Helpers should have the awareness to take time to self-reflect. Journal writing, therapy, and talking with a supervisor or friend are examples of good habits that build self-awareness. Creating balance by maintaining healthy boundaries between work and home life is important. Developing non-trauma related interest and hobbies are critical. Learning to relax through meditation, quiet activities, or exercise can be emotionally restorative. Connections are important, having supportive colleagues or peers can help reduce isolation and give opportunities to share feelings or experiences. It is also an important way to develop and nurture trusting relationship.

If you have experienced vicarious trauma, there are ways to cope. This means that you will need to identify what strategies can help you prevent trauma from becoming severe and help manage it when it becomes problematic. Think about good coping strategies that will help you take care of yourself, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Things that can help you mentally escape from the trauma, such as reading a good book, watching a movie, talking to friends and family about other things. Strategies to help you physically are resting, exercising, eating healthy, staying hydrated, relaxing; some examples of these are not setting deadlines, finding down time, getting a massage, or taking a nap. Your connections to your family and friends, co-workers and colleagues, or other professionals can help you emotionally. Reach out for spiritual guidance in line with your beliefs to help you find the good in life and what you do. Finally, finding the time to enjoy the simple things such as engaging in activities that make you laugh, and enjoying time with family and friends. Remember to have awareness, create balance, and keep your connections.