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What Is Vicarious Trauma?

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is an ongoing process of change over time that results from witnessing or hearing about other people’s suffering and need. When you identify with the pain of people who have endured terrible things, you bring their grief, fear, anger, and despair into your own awareness and experience. Your commitment and sense of responsibility can lead to high expectations and eventually contribute to your feeling burdened, overwhelmed, and perhaps hopeless. Vicarious trauma, like experiencing trauma directly, can deeply impact the way you see the world and your deepest sense of meaning and hope.

– Headington Institute

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an experience where death or serious injury is a very real threat. This can include your own direct experiences, witnessed events, or situations faced by someone you care about.

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious Trauma is an ongoing process of change over time that results from witnessing or hearing about other people’s pain and suffering. It may feel overwhelming to hear about an intense trauma so personal reactions are delayed as you focus on the task at hand. Listening to traumatic material can also trigger memories of your own previous traumas. Vicarious trauma is similar to direct trauma. It carries many of the same symptoms and can be treated in many of the same ways.

Who Experiences Vicarious Trauma?

If you are regularly hearing about another person’s trauma, then you are at risk of developing vicarious trauma symptoms. This can include medical providers, law enforcement, mental health staff, social workers, and those working in the courts. How you experience vicarious trauma depends on many factors including personality, personal experience, life stressors, social support, and spiritual resources.

Common Reactions to Vicarious Trauma: 

• PHYSICAL: Feeling on edge, difficulty sleeping, feeling tired, getting sick
• EMOTIONAL: Feeling sad or anxious, angry, irritable, lonely or unsupported, unsafe
• COGNITIVE: Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, memory problems, disturbing imagery, nightmares, “zoning out”
• BEHAVIORAL: Social withdrawal, drinking or smoking more, changes in eating patterns, overprotectiveness
• RELATIONAL: Expecting the worst of others, becoming judgmental, relationship problems, loss of friends
• SPIRITUAL: Cynicism, discouragement, loss of faith, an attitude of “why bother”

How to Address Vicarious Trauma:

  • PHYSICAL & BEHAVIORAL: Exercise, sleep 8-10 hours each night, eat regular healthy snacks and meals (reduce quantity, increase quality), take necessary medications, limit alcohol, drugs, and smoking, drink water, shower to “wash the day away,” follow a routine, balance priorities
  • EMOTIONAL & RELATIONAL: Seek support, journal, paint, laugh, watch movies, avoid news/violent TV shows, read books, listen to music
  • COGNITIVE: Focus on positive thoughts, affirm your strengths, do breathing and visualization exercises, remind yourself that this is temporary, stay in the present moment
  • SPIRITUAL: Participate in a community that you value, pray/meditate/do readings, connect to the outdoors, sing
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