Understanding Vicarious Trauma and What to Do About it
Vicarious trauma; it’s a term that you may or may not have heard before depending on your workplace or industry. Whether you’ve heard the term before or not, it’s an important concept to know; but what exactly does it mean?
Early in the 1990’s researchers Karen Saakvitne, PhD and Laurie Anne Peralman, PhD defined the term as the “pervasive effect on the identity, worldview, psychological needs, beliefs, and memory systems of therapists who treat trauma survivors.” The term itself has expanded since the 90’s to include more individuals than just those who work in a therapist role however. Commonly referred to now as compassion fatigue or secondary traumatization, vicarious trauma can occur in any person who has a significant relationship with a survivor of trauma.
If we break down the definition of vicarious trauma, it simply refers to the effect that trauma survivors have on the professionals or individuals who work or interact with them. Believe it or not, trauma can expand beyond just those who directly experience it. There are many different forms or symptoms a person who experiences vicarious trauma may have such as:
Emotional: grief, anxiety, or sadness
Behavioral: isolation, increase in alcohol or substance consumption, altered eating habits or difficulty sleeping
Physiological: headaches, rashes, ulcers or heartburn
Cognitive: cynicism, negativity, difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
Spiritual: lose of hope, decreased sense of purpose, or feelings of disconnect from others or the world in general
While we recognize the symptoms of those who experience vicarious trauma, it is important to stress that this is not to ignore or devalue the symptoms faced by trauma survivors. It is however important to consider how trauma can permeate beyond the trauma survivor to the professionals or individuals that work or interact with these survivors. Oftentimes, individuals who experience vicarious trauma can also experience burnout in their jobs from this high “cost of caring” for others.
So, what can you do if you’re an individual who is experiencing or has experienced vicarious trauma? Whether you’re in a field of work that consistently experiences vicarious trauma or you just generally interact with an individual who is a survivor of trauma, everyone can benefit from integrating the practice of self-care into their lives.
Self-care is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as “The process of looking after one's self.” Practicing self-care may include a variety of different activities that “look after one’s self” which may look different for each person. For example, for some people, self-care looks like exercising, while others may find that reading or a completing a calming activity like creating art is more their speed. While self-care looks different for everyone, here are several simple ways that you can practice self-care to get you started.
Sometimes those who work in fields that help individuals dealing with trauma feel guilty about taking out extra time for themselves or practicing self-care. It’s important to recognize that in order to help others one must ensure that they are healthy and taken care of themself. Taking care of yourself both physically and mentally is never selfish and should be recognized as an important part of everyone’s well-being.
Overall, when managing vicarious trauma it is important to find the best balance of work, personal life and self-care that works for you. There is no one right solution for everyone, so it’s important to consider what you feel is best for you.
Contributing Writer: Brittany A. Hamilton
Photo Credit: Pham Khoai