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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

Acknowledging the impact of vicarious trauma


Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing or hearing about traumatic events experienced by others. It is often experienced by professionals who work in fields such as healthcare, social work, emergency services, legal support, and journalism.


It is important to understand that experiencing vicarious trauma is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Professionals who work with trauma survivors are often exposed to graphic and distressing material, and it is not uncommon for them to experience negative outcomes as a response to the caring work they do. It is important to acknowledge and validate these experiences, helping people to understand that this response is a normal human response and not a “weakness”, and to provide support and resources to help people cope with the impact of vicarious trauma.


Some of the primary symptoms of vicarious trauma are physical. They can include fatigue, headaches, and digestive issues. Emotional symptoms may include anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness. Psychological symptoms can include nightmares, unwelcome intrusive thoughts, and avoidance behaviours.


Unfortunately, there is often a stigma attached to experiencing vicarious trauma. Professionals may feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit that they are struggling, or may fear that it will impact their boss’s perception of their job performance or even their future career prospects. It is important to de-stigmatise vicarious trauma and to create a culture that supports individuals who are experiencing its impact.


One way to do this is to promote self-care and well-being practices. This can include encouraging and role-modelling the benefits of taking breaks, engaging in activities that promote joy, and seeking support from colleagues or mental health professionals. It is also important to provide organisational support, such as access to counselling services or training on trauma-informed care.


Ultimately, we need to shift the focus from individual responsibility to organisational responsibility. It is not enough to expect individuals to manage the impact of vicarious trauma on their own. We need to create systems and structures that support the well-being of professionals who work in high-stress and high-trauma environments.


By acknowledging the impact of vicarious trauma, de-stigmatising its effects, and providing resources and support, we can create healthier and more resilient workplaces that prioritise the well-being of all employees.

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