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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

Vicarious trauma: Personal risk factors

Vicarious trauma is a natural result of our brain and emotions being in an unnatural setting. It is natural to feel empathy for others, and to relate to their stories as they tell them, feeling anger and crying alongside a friend when she shares her story with us. The emotion is felt, released, and processed naturally.

However, in the helping professions, the helper must contain their own emotional response in what I call professional empathy, which of course is very different to the automatic empathy that we feel when a loved one is hurt. This professional empathy places a cross directional strain on the emotional control of the professional helper in that they are supporting and containing the client’s distress, as well as their own response to that distress so that they can be of assistance. A professional helper’s ability to help is vastly compromised if they are in a rage or floods of tears in response to the trauma material, and that’s also not what the client wants or needs.

So, for you as the professional, your own limbic system is being activated by the trauma story unfolding before you, but at the same time you are damping down your automatic physiological and emotional response to that stimulus to maintain a calm presence in the here and now.

Your stress is a normal response not a problem to be buried.

One of the primary personal risk factors for vicarious trauma is where the helper has their own memories of personal trauma, particularly if that trauma is unresolved. It’s been reported that just over 50% of people in helping professions report that they have experienced personal trauma, and this may even be the catalyst for their decision to enter the field. The person who has suffered their own personal trauma is often very skilled at professional empathy because of having to maintain emotional control in traumatic situations or when experiencing memories of trauma. They may also have a higher tolerance for traumatic content.

However, when a person’s own trauma memories are triggered by a professional situation, they may start to feel that they are in an intense personal crisis. This crisis is damped down in the moment of professionalism, but the unconscious physiological and emotional processes will still react; creating a cascade of stress hormones which contribute to feelings of irritation, resentment, fatigue and helplessness. You may also feel stuck in a loop of professional empathy where the trauma story creates an ongoing unconscious response which triggers memories of the trauma story which then feels like obsessive thoughts.

It is so important for everyone in the helping professions to seek their own clinical support or supervision, and to be supported by their organisation on a regular basis, both formally and through organisation endorsed peer support. It is doubly important, if you have experienced your own trauma, to be aware of your unconscious reactions and patterns. When you can bring the unconscious reactions to the conscious you reduce their power to trap you in unhealthy responses to your own memories and your work.

Vicarious trauma is a natural result of an unnatural situation.

Your stress is a normal response and should be seen as a trigger for reflection and the process of moving forward, not as a problem to be buried.

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