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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

The Hero's Journey

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

In this blog post we will look at the polar opposite of vicarious trauma, which is post traumatic growth. While vicarious trauma is one of the risks of working in a trauma field, there are several positives to be gained from this work too. And it is this healthy, growth space which trauma support workers can be guided to with awareness, mindfulness and strong, clinically led support. There is a huge amount of satisfaction that can be gained from supporting others, while simultaneously gaining new knowledge and skills to improve your own life. This is the very definition of job satisfaction.

Vicarious trauma has been researched for the past thirty years and is now one of the known risks of supporting people who have been impacted by trauma. You can experience vicarious trauma as a result of witnessing trauma, being exposed to traumatic material, or from bearing witness to trauma; ie: supporting someone through the narrative of trauma during therapy or other support work. This trauma can be grief, shock, a result of natural disaster, accidental trauma or interpersonal trauma. You can be impacted by another's trauma because in order to understand any story we create frames of reference for it in our internal narrative. It becomes a part of our own story line to a greater or lesser degree depending on how much we personally resonate with it. And over time after hearing similar stories repeatedly we resonate more and more with them. The cumulation of this alteration to our own story line is what can trigger vicarious trauma.

You walk your own Hero’s journey every day

Vicarious trauma has many of the hallmarks of post traumatic stress disorder, where the cumulation of the stress creates a cascade of stress disorders. These symptoms include: nightmares, depression or anxiety, withdrawal and avoidance of usual activities, a reduction of trust in the world and in other people, a fear for the safety of self and loved ones, a heightened sense of watchfulness, and hyper vigilance against threat.

The flip side of post traumatic stress disorder, and one which is being increasingly researched, is the phenomenon of post traumatic growth.

For those workers who are supported by strong clinical supervision and strong peer support networks, the change in internal narrative can actually become a source of strength and resilience known as post traumatic growth. (Not to be confused with resilience or vicarious resilience which will be discussed in more depth in another post.) Strong and robust, clinically led supervision can encourage post traumatic growth so that the impact of the work is a positive to the worker’s life and experience, rather than being a negative. Post traumatic growth can sometimes be confused with resilience, but the two have several differences. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from change or adversity, whereas post traumatic growth is where someone goes through the trials of the trauma, or vicarious trauma, and then finds a sense of personal growth and positive internal change. Post traumatic growth is the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is a common narrative archetype where the protagonist (the character in the tale we identify with, such as the reluctant hero or the wounded healer) leaves the familiar world behind and embarks on a journey. The journey leads the hero to gain new knowledge, often painfully, and be transformed by it, returning to the familiar world as a changed person, with insights and valuable gifts: the “treasure”.

You walk your own Hero’s journey every day, and in everything you do. Particularly for people working with those impacted by trauma, you see and hear things that change your view of the world. How we then incorporate the new learnings, determines how we return to our familiar world. Are we feeling safer or less safe?

Empathy is the basis of human connection.

It helps to understand that when we repeatedly hear stories of trauma we reframe them in our own narrative so that we can understand them better, and more empathically support the people we work with. This style of empathy is a pillar of natural, human connection, and a vital connection to be made in any supportive role. However it can also lead to vicarious trauma due to our perceptions of the world being changed; leading us to see the world as an unsafe place, creating an increasing subconscious vigilance with the correlating cascade of stress hormones.

Awareness of these dynamics can help protect workers against the psychological and physical ill effects of vicarious trauma, while a strong clinical supervision framework can guide workers to a level of growth that helps them to maintain satisfaction in their work.

Where are you in your Hero’s Journey?

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