It is natural to feel empathy towards individuals who may have experienced pain or traumatic stress at one point or another. Empathy is often a natural reaction drawn out of the concern and worry for another. At times this concern can get the better of people such that it becomes detrimental to their own mental and physical health, which results in vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma centers on empathy toward people who have had traumatic experiences and negatively affect the caregiver.
What Is Vicarious Trauma?
Life isn't always a smooth journey, so we may experience or witness incidents that leave a traumatic imprint. These experiences sometimes lead to a traumatic stress disorder where the trauma has a lasting effect, and the individual has difficulties recovering from the incident.
This may result in a person experiencing physical or emotional pain whenever the event's memory is triggered. More often than not, many people go through traumatic stress leaving us feeling emphatic towards them.
When caring for someone with traumatic stress disorder, the caregiver may experience a secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. When taking care of the patient, the caregiver's exposure may imprint the caregiver, which results in a secondary effect of the trauma that the caregiver experiences. This is a possible effect of the caregiver's exposure to the individual's trauma experience firsthand.
This psychological condition refers to the adverse effects a caregiver may experience when taking care of a trauma patient. It may alter the caregiver's perception of self, others, and society. Caregivers in this context refer to psychiatrists, mental health clinicians, or anyone placed in charge of a traumatic stress disorder patient.
Trauma may stem from the emphatic relationship a caregiver shares with a patient. The closeness becomes manifested in their thoughts, behavioral, and emotional manifestations. Vicarious trauma is one of the occupational challenges faced by people volunteering or working in mental health professions, fire services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and other institutions that may manage individuals experiencing trauma. This is because they are continuously exposed to those who have lived through traumatic experiences. The psychological condition results from listening to traumatic survivors recount their tales or reading about the case during a review.
Due to the consistent exposure of trauma and recounts of difficult events, their perception of the world often changes, and they may develop a sense of hopelessness. Although the severity of this trauma varies in people, a shift in perception about the world is a prominent symptom of vicarious trauma. Some individuals experiencing vicarious trauma may become more fearful or cynical, while others become more grateful for what they have.
Signs And Symptoms Of Vicarious Trauma
The susceptibility of caregivers to vicarious trauma is often called the cost of caring for trauma survivors. This is perhaps because the caregiver relives the traumatic incident, pain, torture, and fear while engaging with their trauma patients. When dealing with traumatic survivors, it's important to be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma:
Suppose you are experiencing some of these symptoms. In that case, it may be possible you may be experiencing vicarious trauma, especially if you have begun to exhibit more than one of the listed symptoms. However, do not fret as effective strategies to reduce the risk of experiencing this traumatic disorder.
Risk Factors Of Vicarious Trauma
Any individual working with individuals who have experienced trauma are at risk of being impacted by the negative effects of vicarious trauma. However, some factors may make an individual more prone to this occupational risk than others. Understanding these risk factors may make it easier to prevent or address this form of trauma. The following are risk factors that may put you at a higher risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.
Strategies For Reducing Risk of Vicarious Trauma
Suppose you believe you or a loved one may be experiencing vicarious trauma. In that case, there are strategies you may be able to implement (or encourage your loved one to implement) to help cope and reduce the risk of experiencing this form of trauma.
How Organizations May Be Able to Reduce the Risk
The organization and coworkers play an integral role in protecting its employees from the risk of vicarious trauma. There are strategies the organization can implement and helpful tips coworkers can adopt to help caregivers deal with trauma.
In a situation that you suspect that a colleague may be experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma, you could consider these methods:
If you believe you or a loved one may be experiencing vicarious trauma, it's important to be aware of the symptoms so you can implement effective strategies to address them. If you're finding it difficult to manage the vicarious trauma you may be experiencing; you're not alone. A licensed mental health professional can help. An online therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist that best suits your specific needs. They can provide tools, strategies, and different therapies that may help you manage your vicarious trauma and improve your mental health and overall well-being. Reach out today to begin your journey to a better you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Although some may confuse them with each other, there is a visible difference between vicarious trauma and burnout. Vicarious trauma refers to the cumulative negative changes due to repeated exposure to trauma patients’ experiences. These negative changes which occur over time result in a different perspective and lifestyle.
On the other hand, burnout refers to the exhaustion caused by prolonged physical and psychological exertion. It doesn’t include traces of trauma, and neither are its symptoms trauma-like. Although they may be similar because they relate to an individual’s professional life, the causes and symptoms differ.
Although there may not be a formal association such as the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), strides are being made to create support groups for those experiencing vicarious trauma. Some organizations may create staff support groups and peer support to share their experiences and trauma when dealing with their patients. It is an avenue for them to express their fears and work together towards dealing with this form of trauma. Some institutions also implement routine checks for their employees to assess their physical and mental state. This is done to quickly detect and manage those that may be experiencing vicarious trauma.
Although most people who experience this condition may be psychiatrists, mental health clinicians, counselors, and others within this career line, non-medical practitioners may also experience vicarious trauma. Humanitarians or even students who are consistently exposed to trauma survivors may experience this condition. Consistent exposure to videos, reading about traumatic experiences, and witnessing their pain can expose a person to the possibility of developing vicarious trauma.
This trauma originates from exposure, empathy, and the feeling of commitment and responsibility towards trauma survivors. This means that any person put within this confine may experience a risk of this trauma.
The ethical code of conduct and confidentiality restricts you from exposing your patients’ identities without their prior consent. This means that when sharing your experience, you need to ensure that you do not place a patient’s identity at risk. It is possible to share your experiences without necessarily compromising the identity of your patient. As such, it is essential to take caution when sharing your experiences with others so you don’t compromise your patient’s safety and breach the law.
Over time, by implementing the needed strategies, you may cope effectively with the trauma and overcome it. It is best to address the trauma when it begins instead of avoiding it because the symptoms and how it affects your life may get more severe. If you feel you may be experiencing vicarious trauma, a licensed professional may be able to help.