What Is Vicarious Trauma?

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

            As a psychologist treating survivors of trauma, I have been honored to bear witness to my patients’ incredible journeys and transformations. Along the way, I have been unavoidably exposed to their trauma-related suffering, including childhood traumas, sexual assault, traumatic injuries, loss, and natural disasters. Exposure to my patients’ traumas has put me at risk of developing Vicarious Trauma (VT). Vicarious trauma is the transformation of a helper’s inner experiences due to empathically engaging with individuals who have experienced trauma or stress. Vicarious trauma is developed over time after continued exposure to individuals’ traumas and stress and it can dramatically affect our ability to connect with our loved ones, meet our professional goals, or function as our best selves.

Two hands stretch towards each other against a gray background. Silhouettes of hands.

Often, VT develops outside of our awareness and our loved ones are the first to point it out. I will never forget when my husband, a jazz musician, sent me his google search results for “how to help your wife who is a trauma psychologist and is really moody,” which inevitably led him to articles about VT. I had just started a new position as the only licensed mental health professional working with survivors of traumatic injury at a Level 1 Trauma Center and did not realize that I had become more irritable, emotionally distant, and overly fearful for the safety of my loved ones. Even though I had been teaching and writing about VT for years, it still found me. As I learned firsthand, VT is an inevitable hazard for all helpers, whether they be healthcare providers, first responders, or family members caring for loved ones; we simply cannot do our jobs and remain unchanged. Fortunately, we are able to address VT and, as someone reading this book, you will develop skills to identify its potentially damaging effects and become equipped with tools to take the first steps towards healing.

How Does VT Show Up For You?

            Once we have developed VT, it can be triggered in any number of ways and thus reveal itself in our everyday lives. The most common triggers are reminders of themes or topics similar to our work-related stressors. For a nurse who just participated in a code for a young child, returning home to her 4 year old daughter may trigger feelings of fear for her daughter’s safety and, simultaneously, grief for the loss of her patient’s life. When our VT goes unaddressed for long periods of time, simply arriving at work can trigger us to stay in the car those 5 extra minutes to avoid empathic engagement, even if it means clocking in late. Patterns like not answering our work phone or avoiding checking voicemails might emerge in our attempts to limit our exposure to more upsetting news or stories. Similarly, we may find ourselves snapping at our loved ones and minimizing their emotions or stressors because their problems seem so minuscule and meaningless compared to the issues we confront day in and day out. These are just a few signs that VT is negatively affecting our identity, spirituality, worldview, and self-capacities, which will is explored in more detail in my blog post about how to identify and address VT.

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