Whilst many people have an understanding of what post traumatic stress disorder is (PTSD), not everyone has heard of vicarious trauma. When it comes to trauma, it is always an unpleasant experience to have to recover from. Whether this is abuse or an accident that has threatened you with the prospect of death. But something else you may find particularly interesting is that sometimes, you may not have to personally experience an adverse event at all to surface trauma that affects your daily life as being witness to someone else’s experience can be equally as traumatising.
What Is Vicarious Trauma?
Vicarious trauma, also known as insidious trauma or secondary traumatisation, occurs when someone who was not the immediate witness to a trauma absorbs and integrates the disturbing aspects of the traumatic experience within their own functioning. Some who are prone to vicarious trauma might associate their feelings to compassion fatigue or burnout.
Though it can happen to anyone, vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for many people who work in emotionally harsh environments. Victim services such as law enforcement, counselling, emergency medical services, fire services, and other allied professions are at risk of vicarious trauma. This is because these people are surrounded by trauma, victims, and violence on a daily basis, which can inadvertently transfer onto themselves.
Symptoms of Vicarious Traumatization
When it comes to vicarious trauma, it can often showcase many of the same symptoms as the person who experienced the trauma first-hand. In general, these types of symptoms are grouped together in three categories:
- Intrusions: flashbacks, nightmares, etc.
- Avoidance: Trying to stay away from certain people or places that trigger a response
- Hyperarousal: such as an increased startle response and hypervigilance
In addition to the above responses, for a more comprehensive picture, here is a list of specific symptoms that someone with vicarious trauma may notice:
- Sleep disturbances
- Appetite changes
- Losing things
- Self-harm behaviours
- Negative coping behaviours (smoking, drinking)
- Panic symptoms (rapid heart rate, dizziness, difficulty breathing)
- Lowered self-esteem
- Trouble concentrating
- Repetitive images of the trauma
- Survivor guilt
- Sadness and/or depression
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Change in parenting style (becoming overprotective)
Strategies to Manage Vicarious Trauma
If you feel like you have vicarious trauma, just know that you are not alone, and there are valuable ways you can learn to cope. For instance, take the time to monitor yourself on a regular basis, especially after a very heart aching situation you had to face. Keep track of your levels of burnout or compassion fatigue, and see where your lines are. If you ever feel like you are reaching a breaking point, step back, take time to focus on yourself to recharge and become more resilient. Some other notable strategies include:
- Take Time for Yourself: Though it was touched upon above, it is important that you understand to put yourself first every so often. Take a day off to do the things you love doing. Go partake in therapeutic activities and enjoy your time without any focus on others or your work.
- Be Balanced: Another thing you will want to do is be balanced, both mentally, emotionally, and physically. When one of these aspects is off, it can make you vulnerable to vicarious trauma. Eat healthily, get enough rest, meditate, exercise, and whatever else it is you enjoy doing to feel well rounded.
- Separate Yourself: When you are at work and are face to face with a trauma situation, it is vital that you separate your personal values, opinions, and personality from what is going on. Tell yourself that this is not your pain to feel, you are just holding onto it for a little while at work, and leaving it there when you go home.
- Limit yourself: When you are at work, especially in a counselling setting, never break the boundaries that were set at the beginning with clients. You may also want to think about limiting the number of trauma clients you see on any given day, so you are not spending the entire working day filled with sadness that can, directly and indirectly, harm your cognitive state.
First and foremost, if you are someone who works in a trauma-inducing role, you should be proud of yourself to support others during their weakest moments and help them live fulfilling, happy lives. But that does not mean you have to suffer from second-hand traumatization in the meantime. If you feel like you are prone to vicarious trauma, or are currently going through it, try the strategies above to get back to a healthier state. If after some time goes by, and you still feel the underlying symptoms, do not hesitate to seek out trauma focused therapies for yourself. This can include trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT-TF) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Quest Psychology Services are specialists in Trauma Therapy within Salford, Manchester. To discuss getting help for you or a loved one call us on 07932737335