Vicarious Trauma

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What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is the accruing effect of being exposed to someone else’s trauma. It frequently occurs in people who engage with trauma survivors or witness traumatic events, especially on a repetitive basis.

Vicarious trauma typically involves a shift in the world view of the individual. Symptoms can be emotional, behavioral, physiological, cognitive or spiritual and the individual’s beliefs about the world may be altered or damaged by repeated exposure to traumatic material. For this reason, vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is common among professionals known for helping others, like:

  • Therapists
  • Social workers
  • Police officers
  • Firefighters
  • Paramedics
  • Doctors
Choosing Appropriate Self-Care Over Avoidance

In my previous law enforcement work, I was attuned to the psychological after-affects of crisis work within emergency and trauma response professions.  There was a clubhouse exclusive to those of us who wanted to meet up, share stories, and imbibe away from the public’s eye.  When I first went to this establishment, I expected there to be a herd of sorrow-filled patrons retelling the traumas of their day, while hovering over their dew-laden beer steins.  What I found was beer and spirits aplenty, but virtually no measure of sorrow nor odes to the workday.  There was laughter, back-slapping, and the telling of tall-tales in competitions of one-upmanship.  

These crisis responders were fully involved in cognitive healing through a process of extinction.  Here they collectively engaged in attempting to eliminate the stories of their work, to ward off relative harm.  This protocol is quite the opposite of what our workplace leadership advised us to do.

Of course the outcome for those engaging in their own version of clubhouse trauma relief, only succeeded in delaying the vicarious effects of their work.

Choosing the Right Coping Strategies

People in helping professions should take steps to reduce the risk of vicarious trauma.  Should they develop their own style of clubhouse to ward off the ghosts of their work, it should include activities to awaken the awareness of, and efforts to remediate, their response to trauma-involved work.  Feeling helpless and feeling hopeless, becoming hypervigilant in our work, diminished creativity in our personal and professional lives, minimizing experiences, chronic exhaustion, and physical ailments are all symptoms that may develop when our brain responds to vicarious trauma (Lipsky & Burk, 2009, Ch. 4).  Accept that you are exhibiting these markers of your work and take prudent measures to resolve them.

By: Mark Marsden, EKU social work student

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Lipsky, L.V. & Burk, B. (2009). Trauma stewardship. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.  

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