Vicarious trauma is something that many in helping professions such as psychologists, doctors, nurses, social workers or the emergency services can experiences. Recently Dr Warwick from Quest Psychology Services was interviewed by My Social Work News in regards to not only understanding what vicarious trauma is, but how that differs from secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. A confusing subject as they often overlap, but the interview looks to highlight both the similarities and differences and then provide some helpful tips on how to manage this if you start to recognise the warning signs in yourself or colleagues.
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“Vicarious Trauma accumulates over time,” explains Chartered Counselling Psychologist, Dr Gregory Warwick.
“It’s a process of change that takes place as the result of repeated exposure to trauma, and something we see a lot in professions such as police, fire brigade, and – of course – social work.
How can it happen?
“The pandemic has brought about a lot of disconnect,” explains Dr Gregory, director of Quest Psychology in Manchester.
“In high pressure industries, like social work, being able to vent and debrief is an essential part of processing the things you’ve seen and heard during the day, and ensuring you can switch off from them at the end of a night.
“With a job as serious as social work, we would expect to see colleagues interacting using a healthy dose of black humour to get through their day. These are things we just can’t do with our own families in lockdown.
“This lack of communication can leave people vulnerable to the kind of emotional residue which can lead to Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Trauma, and Compassion Fatigue.”
Breaking down trauma
“There are three kinds of trauma disorder that are often confused. Vicarious Trauma comes as a result of empathetic engagement over a long period of time, and can lead to lingering feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, and hopelessness.
“While Vicarious Trauma accumulates, Secondary Trauma can come on suddenly, usually causing a PTSD response. Even though the sufferer hasn’t personally experienced the trauma, the result can be vivid, with flashbacks and nightmares.
“With Compassion Fatigue, we see a long-term exposure to traumatic information that wears down the person’s empathy to the point that they no longer care or connect.”
What to look out for – in yourself and others
“Burnout is an early sign. You might find yourself developing new negative views of yourself, of others, and of the world in general.”
“We would expect to be seeing some of the symptoms of PTSD – intrusive thoughts, withdrawal, a disconnect from reality, and vivid flashbacks, even though the person experiencing it wasn’t actually there.”
“Disconnection, and a lack of reaction to something horrible or sad, or not having the reaction you might expect. A complete lack of empathy, not really caring about the job anymore, or the people involved.
What can be done?
“Communicate, carve regular time out to talk with your team,” says Dr Gregory.
“For managers, this could mean arranging a daily 15-minute virtual coffee break, where everyone is encouraged to share, or checking in one-on-one with someone who’s dealing with a particularly nasty case.
“If a case is triggering to you personally, for whatever reason, alert your manager and swap the case out.
“It’s also important to do all the usual things to look after yourself – exercising, eating well, taking part in hobbies, and engaging in mindfulness to bring down anxiety and help keep yourself grounded in the present, rather than losing yourself to the things you’ve heard and witnessed.
“It’s also important to say that, with time, communication, and self-care, your feelings can be restored, and your thresholds put back to where they should be, but small consistent steps can stop you getting to that place.
“Lunch breaks is one of those things I know too many people do without but, now more than ever, it’s important to take time for yourself in the day, and to ensure you’re clocking off in good time.
“It’s like that old airplane analogy, about putting on your own mask before fitting anybody else’s. If you neglect your mental health, forgo your boundaries, and put yourself at risk in an effort to help, you’ll end up helping absolutely nobody.”