What Is Vicarious Trauma?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated June 8, 2022

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:

  • A lingering feeling of rage, sadness, and anger about the trauma survivor's experiences
  • Becoming overly emotionally attached to the trauma patient
  • A sense of self-doubt often accompanied by shame and questioning of self-worth
  • Consistent reflection of the patient's experience even outside the walls of the patient's vicinity
  • A feeling of cynicism and pessimism accompanied by loss of hope
  • Aching pain in the body is often caused by anxiety that weakens resistance to pain
  • Loss of focus due to fleeting thoughts of patients, which may result in accidents
  • The intense urge to stay away from a patient in a bid to avoid recounts of their traumatic ordeal
  • Over identification with the patient
  • Loss of hope, cynicism, or pessimism
  • Distancing, numbing, and detachment from the patient
  • Difficulties maintaining professional boundaries with the trauma patient
  • Difficulties managing emotions
  • Sleeping problems (difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep)
  • Excessive worrying about potential dangers or a loved one's safety
  • Increased Irritability
  • Developing destructive or unhealthy coping mechanisms
  • Manifesting symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD)

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.

  • Personal traumatic experience(s) in the past
  • Social Isolation
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms - a tendency to withdraw, avoid feelings or assign blame during times of stress.
  • Difficulties expressing feelings
  • Lack of job training or supervision
  • Constant, intense exposure to trauma
  • Lack of effective support for discussing 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.

  • Become more self-aware and self-observant — it may help keep a journal to record your emotions to recognize and chart signs of stress, burnout, or potential vicarious trauma symptoms.
  • Practice self-care emotionally and physically.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance
  • It's important not to take on responsibility for your patient's well-being
  • Balance caseload of trauma and non-trauma related work
  • Take regular breaks and time off
  • Use peer support or support groups
  • Utilize regular therapy sessions with a licensed professional

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.

  • Organizations
  • The adequate orientation of workers on the dangers of vicarious traumatization
  • Creating access to medical and mental support services for employees
  • Creating welfare packages that take care of the personal issues that may be affecting employees, such as childcare support
  • Encouraging and creating rooms for employees to take adequate rest and breaks from work
  • Creating a support system within work for employees to interact and boost morale as well as coworker relationship
  • Adopting a routine check to access employees physical and mental health condition
  • Coworkers

In a situation that you suspect that a colleague may be experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma, you could consider these methods:

  • Reaching out and talking to them about their pain, distress, and the impact of their relations with their patient.
  • Supporting them in finding a balance between their personal and professional life
  • Encouraging them to take enough rest and participate in activities they find interesting and engaging.
  • Referring them to support groups to help them deal with the trauma they are experiencing.
  • Encouraging them to share their concerns with the management

Conclusion

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.

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