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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

First, let’s back up a bit and think about trauma itself. Trauma is a word that covers a range of issues and situations. A traumatic experience means a person has an experience where they are at risk of death or injury. These experiences can include physical or sexual abuse, being in a war zone or a natural disaster.

When you are repeatedly seeing or hearing about another person’s traumatic event, you will be emotionally affected, whether you are consciously aware of it or not.

The emotional distress caused by experiencing or witnessing a trauma event can leave you feeling helpless and disempowered. You may react angrily or withdraw from the people around you. Your emotional distress can cause physical stress, that will then trigger a cascade of hormone reactions in your nervous system. This hormone reaction will switch on your fight/flight/freeze systems and can spark a fear of the world in general, an anxiety state.

All these reactions are completely normal and are part of your experience of living in a broader community group. Being part of a community is something that is hard-wired in you as a survival trait. Empathy for the people in our orbit is also a survival trait.

Let’s think about early human civilisation. The earliest signs of civilisation are not numbers or pictograms. The earliest sign of community is a healed thigh bone after a nasty break. For a femur to heal, that person needed empathy and community around them, to feed them, to shelter them and protect them while they healed enough to move on with the tribe.

When you are supporting someone who has experienced a trauma event, or simply bearing witness to another person’s story of trauma, you recreate their story in your own head. This creates your own frame of reference so you can understand the implications of their trauma as fully as possible.

And that is the definition of empathy: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.

Vicarious trauma happens when you are repeatedly exposed to the hearing other people’s trauma stories. I call vicarious trauma the shadow of empathic connection.

“Vicarious trauma is the shadow of empathic connection."

Vicarious trauma is an incremental and slow process that happens over time, and with repeated exposure to the trauma stories of the people you support.

Vicarious trauma is very common when you are witnessing narratives or actual violence of an interpersonal nature. This may be where one person is violent (physically, sexually or emotionally) towards another person.

It is a second-hand trauma experience. You know intellectually that you haven’t experienced that violence, but now? that trauma narrative is part of your internal frame of reference.

“Vicarious trauma happens when you are repeatedly exposed to the trauma stories of other people."

Some early warning signs that you might be experiencing vicarious trauma can include:

  • an increasing belief that the world is not a safe place

  • a decreasing sense of self-worth and self-esteem

  • and an increasing belief that other people aren’t trustworthy.

When left unchecked, vicarious trauma filters through your belief systems in ways which impact your happiness in your personal and work relationships, your sense of job satisfaction and your ability to do the work with heart. Vicarious trauma can impact your physical health and wellbeing.

If you recognise yourself in these words, please know that you can recover from vicarious trauma, your resilience can be restored, and your satisfaction in work renewed.

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