What Is Vicarious Trauma And How Is It Treated?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated May 2, 2022

Vicarious trauma seems like a strange concept until you understand it thoroughly. After all, how can you have a form of trauma if you never experienced the traumatic event personally? Yet, vicarious trauma is a real challenge for many people. It can affect the way they think, what they believe, and how they behave towards others. Since this term is relatively new, you may not be familiar with it. A right place to start is a trauma definition and a vicarious trauma definition.

What Is Trauma?

Before you can understand what vicarious trauma is, you need to know precisely how trauma is defined. There are two primary definitions of trauma. The first is the layman's definition of trauma, found in the Google Dictionary, is 'a deeply distressing or disturbing experience' or 'the emotional shock following a stressful event or physical injury.'

Trauma is somewhat subjective, in that what causes on person distress may not faze someone else. The definition of trauma in the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used in the psychological/psychiatric professions, broadens this definition, which includes a description of vicarious trauma.

'Trauma is 'exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: directly experiencing the traumatic event(s); witnessing, in person, the traumatic event(s) as it occurred to others. Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or friend must have been violent or accidental); or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event.'

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

It doesn't take a lot of words to give a complete vicarious trauma definition. Vicarious trauma is an intense reaction to being exposed to someone else's trauma story or being exposed to the details of the traumatic event. The only thing missing is who this happens to most.

Who Is Affected by Vicarious Trauma?

People in the helping professions are the ones that typically experience vicarious trauma. The term 'vicarious trauma' was originally coined to describe the reaction a psychologist or counselor has after hearing the stories of traumatized clients. Later, other helpers who deal with traumatized people were added. It also makes sense that people, especially children, who have witnessed these threats or violence may experience vicarious trauma as well; however, this last bit has not been added to most definitions yet.

The list of people who experience vicarious trauma may include:

  • Psychologists and counselors
  • First responders
  • Clergy
  • Doctors, nurses, and others in the medical professions
  • Social workers
  • Justice system professionals
  • Humanitarian workers
  • Journalists
  • Anyone who witnesses or hears the details of a traumatic event happening to a loved one.

The Deeper Meaning of Vicarious Trauma

If you're a helper by trade, experiencing vicarious trauma means you have connected deeply with one or more clients or people you're helping. Countertransference is a relevant psychological term for this. It refers to the 'emotional reaction of the analyst to the subject's contribution,' according to Google Dictionary.

Countertransference can be extremely helpful as you go about helping someone. It enables you to understand how they're thinking and feeling so you can help them more effectively. In short, people who experience vicarious trauma have succeeded in establishing that connection. The only problem is that they've failed to create a boundary that keeps the feelings of the person they're helping separate from their own.

If you have vicarious trauma, it means you care what happens to the person who's experienced the trauma. It says you do 'feel their pain.' Most of all, it means that you're a loving, caring human who looks beyond self to see the suffering of others just so that you can help them.

Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma

People with vicarious trauma may show various symptoms. Some of them are emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, grief, irritability, distractibility, anger and mood changes. You may feel unsafe in surroundings where you usually feel comfortable. You may lose your sense of humor and your joy for things you once loved. You might feel less satisfied with your job or even feel trapped by it.

After vicarious trauma, you may have physical symptoms like ulcers, heartburn, headaches, exhaustion, or even rashes. Your reaction when startled may become more pronounced, leaving you feeling jumpy.

Your behavior may change dramatically. You may begin to isolate yourself, even if you are typically a very social person. You may sleep or eat less than you did before. You may find yourself avoiding people or ditching tasks. You might also start working more days and more extended hours. You might react with alcohol and substance abuse as well as many other risky behaviors.

Your behavior becomes more erratic. You might change jobs several times in a row, or be late or absent often. Although you are likely to grab all the overtime hours you can get, you'll likely be irresponsible on the job. People with vicarious trauma often cause staff problems, blaming others, being impatient and irritable, and communicating poorly. Your motivation decreases, but you're making more mistakes than ever before. You're obsessed with being perfect. You're inflexible and hard to work with on the job.

Your thinking might change as well. You might become very negative and cynical. You might have trouble remembering things, concentrating, or making decisions. You might also think always about the traumatic event you heard about or witnessed. You may always worry that you're not doing enough for the people you want to help. You might find yourself often dreaming about the person you're trying to help and their traumatic experience.

Your spirituality might suffer as well, as you lose hope and a sense of purpose, and begin feeling disconnected from others. You may suddenly feel that you're unworthy of being loved. Your frame of reference for your entire life may seem suddenly turned upside down. You no longer know who you are, what you think about the world, or whether there's something beyond the present reality. At the same time, you aren't engaged with the present moment, but instead, you're dwelling on an incident that happened to someone else.

Treatments for Vicarious Trauma

If you're experiencing vicarious trauma, it makes sense to do something about it. It doesn't matter whether you're in a helping profession or you were traumatized by learning the details of a loved one's trauma. Either way, help is available for you.

Benefits of Treatment

When you address the problem of vicarious trauma through treatment, you can enjoy several benefits, such as:

  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to perform better on your job
  • Improved relationships with friends and family
  • Clearer thinking
  • A renewed sense of purpose
  • Decrease in physiological symptoms
  • Peace of mind

Self-Care

Taking care of yourself in the proper ways can make a dramatic difference in helping you prevent vicarious trauma. For those in the helping professions, this special self-care is essential. First, make sure you get adequate training and supervision to learn your job as well as you can at any given time. Talk to others in your profession who have exposure to the same types of trauma. You can do other types of self-care to deal with vicarious trauma after it's happened. Some suggestions are:

  • Write in a journal
  • Listen to music, play an instrument, or sing
  • Enjoy time with loved ones
  • Get involved with a hobby
  • Explore new interests
  • Take time off work more often

Counseling

Although self-care can help you to some extent, you also need to talk to a counselor. In therapy, you can talk about what happened, your feelings, and the effects vicarious trauma on your life. Therapy is the safest place to talk about your experiences. Your therapist isn't there to judge you, and because of the required privacy, you can be assured that no one else will know what you talked about or judge you, either.

Another advantage of going to therapy is that your counselor can teach you new coping skills to use when you're feeling the effects of vicarious trauma. If you're someone who experienced vicarious trauma by chance in the course of living your life, these skills may be unfamiliar to you. Even if you have been in the helping professions for many years, though, your counselor may teach you new techniques you've never tried before. They can help you create coping strategies to use whenever you're faced with someone else's trauma.

Licensed counselors are available at BetterHelp.com to talk about your vicarious trauma or any other mental health issues you might face. The therapists at Better Help follow strict confidentiality rules, like any other counselors. In fact, this online service is even more private than local therapists, because you don't have to leave your home to have to counsel. You can get therapy anonymously, wherever you choose to set up your internet-connected device.

Vicarious trauma is a serious issue with far-reaching effects. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can get on with your goals, your dreams, and the life you once loved.

 
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