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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

Learn to recognise the early warning signs of vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma is a consequence of being exposed to trauma over time and it grows in tiny incremental steps. The initial stages are often miniscule and don't ring any alarm bells. This is part of the problem. Because then as the impact of vicarious trauma deepens, in tiny stages, each stage is accepted and normalised until a real problem has developed and is manifesting as emotional, psychological, or even physical distress.

The primary hallmark of full-blown vicarious trauma is that your view of the world and yourself is changed, and not for the better. The early warning signs are easy to dismiss at first, particularly if you are working in a culture which doesn’t understand the importance of seeking help for vicarious trauma. For any worker who is exposed to trauma, particularly empathically supporting a trauma victim-survivor, it is vitally important to stay mindful and aware of your physical, behavioural and emotional responses and to access support and self-care strategies when you start to feel that you’re not your usual self. Treat yourself with the kindness and respect you would give to a friend or client.

Many of the ways that vicarious trauma will initially manifest will feel normal or understandable at first. Things like feeling overwhelmed by work, procrastinating, and feeling like you have no time for yourself or your loved ones, can be pretty common emotional states in today's busy life. However, they can also be important warning signs for you to pay attention to what is going on for you internally, and then reflecting on your internal landscape and ways which you can support yourself.

If we look at the primary ways that vicarious trauma can have an impact they are:

  • psychological/emotional/behavioural

  • physical

  • perceptual, or how we perceive the world and other people

Let’s have a look at the different early warning signs to be mindful of. Remember: these signs are not a diagnosis you have vicarious trauma, but they are certainly messages that should prompt you to reflect upon your situation and whether you are at risk of vicarious trauma.

Create your own emotional self check, and develop it as a regular practice.

Psychological/emotional/behavioural warning signs:

  • persistent feelings of anger, helplessness, and sadness about your client’s situation

  • becoming overly involved emotionally with the client

  • experiencing guilt, shame and self-doubt when empathically connecting

  • difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries with the client

  • preoccupation with a client’s situation after work has finished

  • decrease of hope; sometimes with a corresponding increase of pessimism and cynicism

  • avoidant behaviour with clients, becoming increasingly distant

  • increased anger or tearfulness

  • using a substance for solace or self-medication: ie bingeing on anything – TV shopping, eating, alcohol

  • avoiding trauma on TV, or conversely:

  • watching high trauma media as entertainment

Physical warning signs:

You may often find that when you are experiencing trauma, either directly or vicariously, that it will manifest in a particular part of your body. Some of the physical signs include:

  • Headaches

  • Muscle tension.

  • Back and joint pain.

  • Apprehension in your belly

  • Gut upsets

  • A constant sense of fatigue and lethargy

  • Sleep disturbances – either insomnia or excessive sleeping

Perceptual signs can be:

  • Seeing the world as an unsafe place

  • Seeing people as less trustworthy

  • Feeling that you and your loved ones are at risk more and more of the time

Being aware of vicarious trauma is your first step to protecting yourself.

As you can see, these warning signs are all highly individual, and sometimes contradictory – detachment or over involvement, anger or sadness, withdrawal or hyper-vigilance, depending on the individual. Also, all potential warning signs are not listed here. The important take away is to be mindful of the risks of trauma exposure, and to be aware of changes as they start to occur. It is much easier to tackle a problem that is only just beginning, rather than one which has been developing and growing for years.

For any worker who engages empathically with another person who has experienced trauma, reflecting on your internal state is an integral part of your everyday self-care, and is particularly important to develop as a regular practice for anyone working in trauma support roles.

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