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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

Professional risk and protective factors for vicarious trauma.

In this post we’re going to look at the professional risk and protective factors for developing vicarious trauma. These factors can include the types of work people do, the size of their case loads, the amount of trauma support involved, the exposure to traumatic material: these are all contributing factors to the risk of vicarious trauma.

The issue of vicarious trauma is centred in the work context.

Over the past decades of research into vicarious trauma there has been a clear shift away from exclusive focus on workers in the therapeutic support work, such as counsellors, social workers and psychologists, and the focus has expanded to include any worker who is exposed to traumatic material. This expansion includes those in legal professions, hospital staff, frontline workers such as police, firies and ambulance, to academia and the people who research, study and teach trauma.

Any profession which engages with professional empathy with clients who are impacted by trauma will have a heightened risk of developing vicarious trauma. As stated before, vicarious trauma is an unconscious and incremental change to person’s views: the world is seen increasingly as an unsafe place, other people are viewed as less and less trustworthy, and the safety of themselves and their loved ones in the world is seen to be at increasing risk. When a worker is constantly exposed to the cruelty of humans towards each other, stories of violence with gruesome detail, the trauma of grief or stories of interpersonal violence, their perceptions will start to shift. Without mindfulness and awareness of the risk of vicarious trauma these stories start to become embedded in their own narrative, particularly when they may have their own trauma story.

This issue is exacerbated when a worker has a heavy case load, little chance to take leave, and a lack of clinical supervision but these are more organisational risks than professional.

A couple of the protective factors that you can use in your day to day professional life to reduce the risk of vicarious trauma are:

  • Mindfulness

  • Differentiation of Self

Mindfulness is that lovely attribute we all know and love and rarely practice as much as we should. It is defined as “A mental state achieved by focussing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging one’s own thoughts and feelings and physical sensations.” (Oxford Dictionary).

The reason that mindfulness can help mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma is that it keeps you in the calm logic centres of your brain, actively cogitating, as opposed to the limbic centre which may be having an emotional, visceral reaction to work and forgetting all about the here and now. Mindfulness grounds you in the safety of the present moment rather than memories of helplessness and trauma, either of your own trauma of the trauma stories of other people. This will always help reduce the impact of vicarious trauma and the triggering of fear pathways.

Differentiation of self is similar to mindfulness in that it engages your frontal lobe logic centres. There are two primary facets of differentiation of self as it relates to your trauma support work:

  • The ability to separate your feelings from your thoughts

  • To maintain the integrity of your feelings and thoughts in the presence and pressure of the therapeutic alliance.

These strengths are not innate and can be easily hijacked by the emotional centre of your brain. As you practice them though, you are able to process and address the feelings without being misguided by them.

These are both ways to be grounded in the safe here and now, and to be aware of emotions and feelings, without having the emotional centres take over. It is important to note that this is an eternal tightrope + balancing act. If you are too emotionally distanced from the person you are supporting, you won’t be as therapeutically helpful as you could be. If you are too emotionally enmeshed the therapeutic alliance will fall down. There is a goldilocks area where your emotions are engaged enough but not too much, and that is individual for every support worker, no matter what your field of expertise.

The easiest way to begin practicing mindfulness? Take a breath. Focus on that breath. Feel it through your nose, through your lungs, focus on how your body moves. Repeat as often as you need. And bonus that is also the beginning of meditation.

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