Emotionally intelligent people can express empathy, the ability to step into another person’s shoes, seeing and feeling things from their perspective. Empathy allows us to be better listeners and people, but it can also cause distress. The world is filled with pain, and it feels never-ending; seeing that pain firsthand, or being exposed to a constant stream of stories about trauma can be distressing and cause trauma of its own.

What is vicarious trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is the emotional response a person can have to an event such as a natural disaster, accident, or violence such as rape. A traumatized person can experience an entire range of emotions following the event, both immediately and long afterward.

Feeling overwhelmed, shocked, helpless, or struggling to process the experience is often typical for someone experiencing trauma. Trauma has psychological, spiritual, and physiological impacts, and there are several types of traumas such as acute, chronic, and complex trauma.

Vicarious trauma, which is also sometimes called secondary trauma, is when a person experiences the symptoms of trauma from being exposed to other people’s trauma and their stories of traumatic events. The person who experiences vicarious trauma hasn’t personally gone through the initial trauma first-hand; they experience it vicariously, that is, through another person. Anyone who has a meaningful relationship with a trauma survivor is at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.

Symptoms of vicarious trauma may include:

  • behavioral changes such as feelings of isolation, engaging in risky behavior, increasing their workload, or avoiding people or tasks, changing eating habits, having difficulty falling or staying asleep, dreaming about their clients or their client’s traumatic experiences, and an increase in the consumption of substances or alcohol
  • loss of hope, feeling disconnected from others, losing sense of purpose, having diminished feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction, increased negativity, and cynicism, having difficulty with invasive thoughts of a client’s distress and situation
  • diminished joy in the things that they enjoyed
  • emotional changes such as becoming irritable and angry, feeling unsafe, and having enduring feelings of sadness, grief, or anxiety
  • some physiological impact on well-being such as heartburn, rashes, ulcers, and headaches

Over time, these symptoms will likely become worse if left untreated, and so they need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Who is most likely to be affected?

Vicarious trauma typically occurs in those individuals in caring professions such as fire services, emergency medical services, law enforcement, lawyers, and victim services. These and other allied professions are the ones typically on the front line when people experience trauma and need help.

Law enforcement officials are called out to the scenes of horrible crimes, and they see many victims of some of the worst acts human beings can perpetrate on one another. Those in emergency medical services are usually called out to attend to an assortment of injuries, many of them life-threatening and graphic.

When most of us see news reports detailing the situations those people respond to, we are usually given a warning about the graphic nature of the content we’re about to see, and it is often pixelated for us. This is because it is deeply disturbing, and the broader public is better served not seeing such things. For these individuals who are first responders or who work in caring professions, they have no such reprieve.

Vicarious trauma occurs when one is exposed to victims of violence and trauma. Through experiences such as looking at videos of exploited children, responding to the aftermath of violence such as a mass shooting or car accident, listening to people as they relate their experiences of victimization and trauma, and as they review case files day in and day out, these individuals are exposed to trauma continually through the work they perform.

As one can imagine, people such as counselors and therapists who are exposed to stories of their clients’ experiences of trauma can, themselves, experience vicarious trauma. Hearing the stories of others’ trauma can be overwhelming, and they can end up feeling similar feelings that the people in their care experience due to their trauma.

Impact of vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma will affect people differently. When a person experiences vicarious trauma, they can begin feeling the same things the people in their care felt because of their trauma. This can make things difficult in their relationships or at work.

The caregiver can find themselves experiencing not only the symptoms of trauma, but they may also find that their beliefs about and perspective on the world can be damaged or changed through exposure to trauma.

One can imagine a situation where a person who naively believed in the basic goodness of human beings, for example, starts to realize the truth due to constant exposure to young children who have been victimized or abused.

While people in the various professions named above are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma, those who work with survivors of sexual abuse and assault, as well as those who work with children are at higher risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.

Christian counseling for trauma recovery

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), some of those who experience vicarious trauma may also be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in line with its revised diagnostic criteria.

PTSD can afflict a person with intrusive thoughts of the trauma, trigger a stress response when exposed to certain sights, sounds, and places that are evocative of the traumatic event, and someone who has experienced vicarious trauma may experience PTSD.

What can one do if they experience vicarious trauma? First, there are preventative measures one can take to reduce the risk of vicarious trauma, and then there are actions one can take to deal with vicarious trauma when it occurs.

Those who are exposed to trauma frequently such as first responders, law enforcement, lawyers, therapists, and so on can connect with other professionals who also understand experiences of working with trauma. Having that support network goes a long way. Additionally, people that are frequently exposed to trauma are helped if they receive training and supervision that addresses that aspect of their work.

This will prepare them for what they will experience in the course of their work and provide them with tools for handling and processing trauma and related experiences. Where possible, by varying the kind of work they do so that they also vary what they encounter, they can introduce balance into their work schedule and reduce their exposure to trauma.

Additionally, vicarious trauma can be addressed through effective self-care. When immersed in work that exposes one to trauma, the psychological and emotional weight of it all can be overwhelming.

Taking the time to care for themselves can help people regularly exposed to trauma capacity to address their experiences. Vicarious trauma is cumulative, which means that it builds up over time, and so creating room to decompress and address what you’re going through helps to reduce this cumulative effect.

Getting involved in hobbies they enjoy, taking time off work to connect with loved ones, listening to music, journaling, painting, drawing, or listening to music, taking care of their bodies through movement or exercise, will go a long way towards self-care and finding balance in their lives.

Another way to perform self-care is to go to therapy. The professions in which people typically experience vicarious trauma are those where they are present for others. The focus is on those they serve, and they pour themselves out in service to them. Therapy provides a space for those experiencing vicarious trauma to be the focus and to explore their thoughts and feelings in a safe and supportive space.

The feelings one experiences when they encounter stories of trauma are natural, appropriate, and human. Being able to unpack and process thoughts and feelings goes a long way toward promoting emotional and mental well-being by letting you stay in touch with how you feel without letting it overwhelm you.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of vicarious trauma, it’s important to reach out to someone and begin taking steps to address what you’re going through.

“Tears”, Courtesy of Luis Galvez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rain”, Courtesy of Saneej Kallingal, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Broken Glass”, Courtesy of Jilbert Ebrahimi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Plants”, Courtesy of Klim Musalimov, Unsplash.com, CC0 License


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