What Is Vicarious Trauma? Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 27, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It’s natural to feel empathy toward those who are experiencing traumatic events or have experienced pain or trauma. However, those with prolonged exposure to the pain or trauma of others consistently—like at work, for example—may end up feeling drained of empathy after facing these situations, a symptom of their own secondhand or vicarious trauma. This experience can be debilitating, and those who find themselves in this position can benefit from treatment.

The definition of vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma, sometimes called secondary traumatic stress, occurs when a person is exposed or has continuous exposure to the trauma of another indirectly, usually through hearing or seeing a firsthand account of it. As a result, the person’s worldview may shift, and they may experience mental health symptoms that can negatively impact their life and their work. Vicarious trauma is not the same as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which typically applies to those who experience trauma firsthand, but it may have similar symptoms.

People in certain professions are more at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma. Some examples include:

  • Nurses

  • Therapists

  • Paramedics

  • Social workers

  • Law enforcement

  • Journalists

A person can experience vicarious traumatization after working in their field for years or decades, or after a particularly difficult experience or two. It can affect people in different amounts and in different ways.

Compassion fatigue is real and you deserve your own outlet

Signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma

The susceptibility of caregivers to vicarious trauma is often referred to as “the cost of caring” because of its pervasiveness among people in certain professions. If you or someone you love works with trauma survivors, it’s important to know and watch for the common symptoms of vicarious trauma, since it can negatively impact the health and life of the person experiencing it. It can also impact the quality of care that people in these fields are able to provide. Common symptoms may include:

  • Feelings of cynicism and hopelessness

  • Inability to focus

  • Social withdrawal

  • Difficulty managing emotions or emotional numbness

  • Loss of work-related motivation

  • Sleep problems 

  • Excessive worrying about potential dangers

  • Feeling overextended or full of self-doubt

  • Irritability or anger

  • Relationships problems

  • Developing destructive or unhealthy coping strategies

Finally, some people may be more at risk for experiencing vicarious trauma than others, according to the Office for Victims of Crime. This may include those who haven’t received quality training for assisting trauma survivors, who have traumatic experiences in their own past, who support suffering trauma survivors constantly with little to no variation in their work, and/or who lack healthy coping skills or social support.

Reducing the risk of experiencing vicarious trauma

Note that if you sense that you, family members, or a coworker may already be experiencing vicarious trauma symptoms, there is help available. Speaking with a trauma-informed counselor or therapist is typically a recommended first step.

To lower the risk of experiencing vicarious trauma, there are several strategies that people in at-risk fields can put into regular practice to improve their mental health. 

Build a strong social support network

There’s a robust body of research that supports the correlation between strong social support networks and positive health outcomes. These include lower risk of anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline, and even lower risks of physical conditions like a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and others. To put it simply, a strong social support system can have positive effects on a person’s mental health, and this is especially true for those who do emotionally difficult work. Having people you can rely on, speak to, and get support from can reduce your risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.

Practice mindfulness

The basis of mindfulness is cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. Research shows that building this skill through practice over time can have a variety of positive effects. One study in particular found that mindfulness may help prevent vicarious or “secondary” trauma. Once you learn how to tune into present awareness through whatever mindfulness technique works for you, you may be able to practice it while navigating stressful situations throughout your workday to keep yourself emotionally grounded. 

Take breaks and time off

Getting proper rest, practicing self care, and cultivating a healthy work-life balance is essential for avoiding the experience of vicarious trauma. Taking breaks throughout the day is important, as is having variety in your day-to-day tasks at work so that you’re not engaged in face-to-face contact with trauma survivors or traumatic material every minute of every day. It’s also helpful to take time off regularly and use the opportunity to get involved with outside interests and enjoyable, non-work activities. Taking vacations, spending time with people who don’t work in your field, participating in self care activities, or getting involved in hobbies, social groups, sports leagues, art activities, or whatever else you may enjoy can help you create proper space between your job and your personal life. This type of healthy boundary can help you reduce the risk of being affected by or experiencing vicarious trauma.

Try therapy

Whether you feel you’re already experiencing vicarious trauma or are trying to reduce your risk, connecting with a trained counselor or therapist can be a valuable tool. They can work with you to process any trauma or secondhand trauma you’ve already experienced, help you gain perspective on your work, and assist you in identifying coping mechanisms that may defend your mental and emotional health.

For those who have a busy schedule or simply prefer the comfort of seeking treatment from home, virtual therapy is becoming an increasingly popular option. Research suggests that it offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, which makes it a practical and effective method of treatment for people who may be facing any of a wide range of challenges, including prior traumatic experiences. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone or video call. Whether you prefer to meet digitally or in person, a trained therapist can offer you the support you need and deserve.

Ask for support at work

A 2020 study about medical personnel in COVID-19 units and the emotional toll their work can take on them points out that it falls to organizations to provide adequate training to help employees avoid vicarious trauma and related experiences. Training, supervision, and managerial check-ins may all be important factors. If you feel that your workplace does not take enough responsibility or offer adequate support, it may be worth voicing your concerns to management.  


Those who are regularly exposed to trauma survivors and their stories at work may be at risk for experiencing vicarious trauma. The strategies on this list can help people in these fields take care of their mental and emotional health and avoid vicarious trauma as they do their valuable and important work. If you have questions or would like to receive support for processing trauma that you've witnessed or experience, reach out to a professional counselor at BetterHelp.

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