What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Updated October 21, 2020

It is natural to feel empathy toward people who may have experienced pain or traumatic stress at one point or another. Such pressure may have occurred physically or emotionally. Empathy is a reaction often 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 mental and physical health. Vicarious trauma centers on the empathy felt towards people who have had traumatic experiences and their effect on the caregiver.

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What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Life isn’t a smooth journey. And so we may experience or witness incidents that leave a traumatic imprint. These experiences sometimes lead to a traumatic stress disorder such that a person does not recover from an 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 taking care of someone with traumatic stress disorder, the caregiver may experience a secondary trauma effect. The caregiver’s exposure when taking care of the patient could leave an imprint on the caregiver such that the caregiver suffers a secondary effect of the trauma. This is a possible effect of the caregiver’s exposure to the firsthand narration of the ordeal, pain, woes, terror, and fear of the trauma patient.

This psychological condition refers to the adverse effects a caregiver may experience when taking care of a trauma patient. It alters 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 manifest in their thoughts, behavioral, and emotional manifestations.

Vicarious trauma is one of the occupational challenges faced by people volunteering or working in firms or institutions. This is because they are continuously exposed to trauma victims. The psychological condition results from listening to traumatic survivors recount their tales or reading about the case during a review.

And due to the consistent exposure, their perception of the world changes. And they may have a sense of hopelessness. Although the severity of this trauma varies in people, a shift in perception about the world is a prominent symptom.

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 their trauma patients. When dealing with traumatic survivors, you need to be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms:

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  • A lingering feeling of rage, sadness, and anger about the victim’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
  • An aching pain in the body 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
  • A loss of control over emotions such that it becomes difficult to manage
  • Emotional numbness or shut down of intense feelings
  • Consistent fatigue, insomnia and sometimes sleepiness
  • Withdrawal from relationships with others, avoiding intimacy and withdrawing into a shell
  • Adopting destructive coping mechanisms such as alcoholism or substance abuse
  • Lack of interest in extracurricular activities that used to be exciting and engaging
  • Manifesting symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

These and many more are the negative symptoms you may experience as a reaction to this type of traumatization. You may be suffering from this traumatic condition when you have begun to exhibit more than one of the listed symptoms. However, do not fret as there are effective strategies you can implement to reduce the risk of experiencing this traumatic disorder.

Risk Factors Of Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is the negative transformative change that happens to caregivers of traumatic survivors. They witness the effect of the trauma and listen to the ordeals of the trauma patient. Some individuals might be charged positively by these ordeals to lead a change and create a better life.

This psychological condition is a process that unfolds over time. This means that it isn’t just an experience with one person that is responsible for the change but the cumulative experiences over time. It is a process of change that occurs as you interact with victims and patients and listen to their often distressing stories.

Vicarious trauma results from the feeling of commitment and responsibility that a caregiver has for their patient. It is beyond the display of kindness. It focuses on the feeling of empathy the caregiver feels towards the patient, such that they can relate to the victim’s pain and trauma.

The caregiver’s heart and mind are open to the patient’s experience such that it changes the caregiver’s perception of the world. It may change a person’s sense of purpose, hope, and meaning. It may result in such a person questioning their beliefs, values, and relationships.

Some risk factors leave you prone to this traumatic stress disorder and affect how you are affected (either mild or severe). Understanding these risk factors makes it easier to prevent or address this form of trauma. The following are risk factors that place you in a position to suffer from this psychological condition.

  • Personal experiences

A person’s past experiences may influence their susceptibility to this psychological condition. It is perhaps because people who have experienced a situation similar to the patient’s may identify better with it. They may be able to relate intimately with such experiences, and it could trigger memories of their past that are related.

As a consequence of this, they are more prone to experiencing this form of trauma and the adverse effects associated with it. Caregivers who are motivated by their past experiences to venture into taking care of trauma patients may be prone to suffering from this vicarious trauma.

  • Personal coping mechanism

A person’s coping mechanism refers to the thought process and reactions to setbacks and unpleasant memories or events. A person’s coping mechanism can influence how they deal with the trauma experiences of their patients. A person whose instinct to adverse circumstance is to avoid the situation and pretend it doesn’t exist may avoid the trauma experiences of a patient in his charge. This means that such a person might be driven to avoid situations that place them within the patient’s vicinity.

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People whose personal coping mechanism to setbacks is ignoring their feelings might experience a shutdown of their emotions. This often isn’t a lasting coping mechanism. That’s because emotions that aren’t acknowledged tend to build up over time and can be destructive in their wake.

An alternative coping mechanism is to take in all the pain and fear of the patient and build up like a volcano threatening to destroy everything. Either of these coping mechanisms is very destructive and leaves no positive impact on a person. It leaves an individual susceptible to experiencing trauma. Therefore, the coping mechanism of individuals influences their susceptibility to this traumatic condition.

  • Present state in life

The circumstances surrounding a person’s personal life may influence their professional life leaving them prone to this psychological condition. A person whose life is undergoing drastic changes such as the loss of a loved one or a broken relationship may have difficulty performing at their optimum at work.

It is perhaps because they are distracted by negativities surrounding their personal lives. They fail to find a balance with their professional life. And that makes it challenging to perform at their optimum best. It leaves them prone to being reeled into the patient’s trauma. The circumstances surrounding a person’s life might make it challenging to handle the stress associated with being a caregiver to a trauma patient.

  • Patient-doctor confidentiality

The medical code of conduct that prevents a medical practitioner from disclosing a client’s case details may result in a caregiver’s traumatic stress. People working or dealing with trauma survivors may experience difficulty sharing such experiences with those closest to them. The confines of the law restrict them.

So even when traumatized by their experiences with patients, they cannot share their pain and worries. For some, it feels like they have been denied the social support needed to stay on top of their game. The inability to communicate their thoughts and experiences can be distressing such that it affects the person’s emotional and mental wellbeing.

People who can share these experiences may experience difficultly in describing and explaining their ordeal. Usually, it’s because others might not understand. The elements of their work, which makes it difficult to share information, could prove challenging for medical practitioners. This is because they not only experience difficulty explaining their circumstance but are also restricted by the law. They are used to being the caregivers and are not familiar with being on the receiving end.

  • Lifestyle

People who have not connected to a source of purpose, meaning, and hope may be at risk of this condition. This is perhaps because they do not have a strong sense of conviction to a greater purpose, making it difficult to comprehend a trauma survivor’s experiences. Those who have discovered a sense of meaning to life may also experience this psychological condition. They may experience struggles when dealing with the recounts of a trauma survivor’s distress and pain.

A person’s work ethics and work style may influence their susceptibility to trauma. Someone who has mastered managing boundaries may experience difficulty when relating to a patient. This is because such a person is unable to separate the personal from the professional. A person who is obsessive or overly protective of the patient may experience difficulty staying in control of their emotions. This leaves them prone to suffering from trauma due to the empathic relationship shared with the patient.

Vicarious Trauma And Its Influence On A Person’s Personal And Professional Life

Vicarious trauma affects not only the person suffering but also the people surrounding them. The symptoms may be predominant in a person, but then it affects their relationship with others. When this trauma isn’t checked, it affects the relationship shared with family, coworkers, and even patients.

The signs and symptoms suffered would invariably hurt their relations with others. This is because it causes emotional shutdown and may result in withdrawal from loved ones.

It affects such a person’s ability to deliver quality assistance to the patient and the overall functioning of the person in an institution. People suffering from this trauma may find it affecting their workplace effectiveness and their shared relationship with coworkers. Mental health clinicians who suffer from this condition may find themselves affected by the following:

  • The inability to make rational decisions with adequate reflection
  • Loss of focus which results in mistakes that are not only detrimental to the person but also the patient in their charge
  • The urge to take on more tasks to distract themselves from their mental and emotional state. This may often result in ill completed tasks.
  • The inability to keep to commitments
  • The urge to take unaccounted and often excessive time off
  • The tendency to blame others rather than seeking a rational solution to the problems faced
  • The tendency to infect others (family, coworkers, patients) with pessimism or cynicism
  • Devaluing those closest to them and ridiculing the efforts of others as a result of their new mindset

This psychological condition often leaves a negative impact on not only the person suffering from them but also those around them. It is essential to check this condition as it puts the lives of the patients at risk and affects the overall health of the person suffering from them.

Strategies To Implement To Check Vicarious Traumatization

People who are left in charge of trauma survivors witness or listen to them recount tales of their trauma, which may expose them to the risk of traumatic stress. If this condition is left unchecked, it may become hazardous to the person suffering from it and may even threaten their life. Therefore, it is vital to address this trauma before it leaves permanent damage to those suffering from the condition and those around them.

It is essential to understand that coping with this trauma means managing and preventing such an occurrence. The practices within an organization and the individual’s lifestyle are integral to addressing this condition. Strategies to implement that would help manage as well as prevent this condition include:

  • At the individual level

The power to evoke a change lies within an individual. This means that it is the individual’s habits, attitude, and lifestyle that would enable them to overcome this trauma. It is crucial for those working with trauma patients to understand the risk of this traumatic condition and be equipped to take care of their needs. Strategies that can be implemented at the individual level include:

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  • Awareness: When dealing with this form of trauma, you must become aware of your personality, attitude, and beliefs. You must understand your response and reactions to address this trauma. Besides being able to deal with trauma, self-awareness is integral for understanding your emotions and taking control of them. Essentially, awareness is the first step to dealing with this condition. You need to become in sync with your feelings and the risk factors that place you in a position to suffer from this mental condition. It provides you with the opportunity to reflect on your emotions, helping you to connect with them and prevent an emotional shutdown.

One of the symptoms of vicarious trauma is losing a sense of meaning or a sense of purpose to life. Self-awareness would enable you to challenge your beliefs and experiences so you can understand what you are feeling. It helps you identify ways in which to nurture a sense of meaning and hope. It helps you find meaning in your work and instills a sense of hope in you that people who suffer from this condition lose overtime.

You have to develop a self-awareness practice and take time to meditate and reflect on your emotions and reactions. It may seem difficult at first. However, when you become self-aware, it would help you control your pain and manage the trauma you may be experiencing from dealing with trauma survivors.

  • Creating a balance: Here, you take actionable steps towards creating a balance between your personal and professional life. You need to create time to take care of your needs and health. You need to be able to get away from your professional life and take adequate rest to avoid the mental stress your work puts you through. You should create an avenue to engage in activities that lighten your spirits.

When you are overburdened with work, it affects not only your mental wellbeing but also your physical wellbeing. You may experience burnout and fatigue when you are overcome with stress. There are times that it may be difficult to take time off work, but then you may try inculcating activities you are passionate about while dealing with clients.

Some people may consider playing music that relaxes their nerves when attending to the client. This practice may prove to be soothing for not only you but also the patient as it creates a relaxing atmosphere.

It is also essential to find a balance with your personal and professional life. This means that you need to work towards dealing with the things that are stressing you in your personal life. When you find a balance in your life, it enables you to take charge of your life and prevents you from losing focus.

You should develop a healthy work habit and find a balance in your career. A lot of people do not understand that overburdening themselves with tasks is detrimental to their health. They think that they can handle overtasking themselves. They don’t know that it is detrimental to their health.

You can create a plan or schedule for your work. You need to create a balance for your work so that you would still be able to continue with your job with no injuries to your health in a few years to come. This means that you could cut short on the number of hours you spend at work so that you aren’t exhausted.

Then you can give the right quality of work to your patients. It is recommended that you plan and schedule activities for work in a way that suits your strength, so you find balance at work. It is vital to find a balance between your work life and personal life when dealing with this trauma.

  • Social support: Many people share casual relationships with several people and may sometimes find it difficult to create deep intimate bonds with others. Social support is essential to not only dealing with trauma but also preventing it. Creating a deep, meaningful bond is beneficial to your mental and physical health.

Having close relationships with people lets you share your experiences. And it places you in a better position to deal with trauma. It is important that you create room for interactions with people who care about and support you through this ordeal.

It may not be an easy task dealing or coping with traumatization. However, by believing in your abilities and implementing these strategies, you are in a better place to handle the trauma it puts you through. With competent professionals at BetterHelp, you can be assured of a smooth path to recovery. BetterHelp provides a range of development programs to deal with emotional stress and strategies to mitigate the risk of vicarious traumatization.

  • At the organizational level

The organization and coworkers play an integral role in protecting its employees from the risk of this trauma. There are strategies the organization can implement as well as 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 of 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 traumatization, 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 woes with the management
  • Family and close friends

As mentioned earlier, this trauma affects not only the people suffering from this trauma but also those around them. When a friend or family member is suffering from this traumatization, you can implement these strategies.

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  • Express your concern and worries about their conditions and implement supportive strategies designed to help them
  • Withdrawal and emotional shutdown may have them drawing further away but then try as much as possible not to take this against them.
  • Assist them in structuring and creating a suitable work plan that will help them balance their work and personal life
  • Encourage them to participate in engaging activities as well as accompany them to such events.
  • In the case of severe trauma, you may consider seeking professional help for them.

The individual, organization, and those closest to them have a role in protecting them and helping them deal with this trauma. It takes a collaborative effort to help them deal with or prevent this trauma from taking control of their lives.

Vicarious traumatization is the negative changes that occur in the caregiver of a trauma survivor such that it alters their perception, lifestyle, and mental health. It can prove to be detrimental to the overall wellbeing of a person. You should understand these strategies and implement strategies to protect yourself from the drastic effects of this trauma. Although the risk factors vary from individual to individual, you must practice self-awareness and attempt to find a balance between work and your personal life.

Those suffering from this trauma may experience a loss of meaning to life and purpose or severe damage to their mental health. Therefore, organizations and individuals need to protect themselves from these damages and adopt a better lifestyle.

If perhaps, you are experiencing this trauma, there is no need to fret because there are efficient strategies to deal with this form of trauma. Implementing these strategies would help you regain your mental health and offer quality assistance to your patients.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. Is there any difference between vicarious trauma and burnout?

Although several people may confuse them with each other, there is a visible difference between them. Vicarious trauma refers to the cumulative negative changes that occur 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 both be similar because they relate to an individual’s professional life, the causes and symptoms differ.

  1. Are there support systems for those suffering from this psychological condition?

Although there may not be a formal association such as the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), strides are being made to create support groups for those suffering from this trauma. Some organizations create staff support groups where coworkers can 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 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 suffering from trauma.

  1. Is this condition limited to medical practitioners?

Although most people who suffer from this condition are psychiatrists, mental health clinicians, counselors, and others within this career line, non-medical practitioners can suffer, too. Humanitarians or even students who are consistently exposed to trauma victims may suffer from this condition. Consistent exposure to videos, reading about traumatic experiences, and witnessing their pain can expose a person to the possibility of suffering from this condition.

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.

  1. Can I discuss details about my experiences with patients when trying to share my experiences?

The medical 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.

  1. Can this trauma fade over time, or is it compulsory that professional help is sought?

Over time, by implementing the needed strategies, you would be able to deal effectively with the trauma. It is best to deal with the trauma rather than wishing it would fade away because it could get more severe. You may not need to visit a professional for help managing this trauma. You could also consider such programs as BetterHelp for insights on how to deal with trauma and psychological stress.


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