Vicarious Trauma: Understanding Secondary Traumatic Stress

Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue that stays with someone after witnessing another person’s trauma.

In light of the current threats to our physical and emotional safety, this blog is particularly relevant for all of us.

Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue that stays with someone after witnessing another person’s trauma.  People respond to vicarious trauma in a number of ways; negative, neutral, or positive.  However,  a change in their worldview is inevitable—people can either become more cynical or fearful, or they can become more appreciative of what they have, or both. Responses can change over time and can vary from individual to individual, particularly with prolonged exposure. 

Understanding Vicarious Trauma

There are three key elements of vicarious trauma.

  • Indirect Exposure: Unlike primary trauma, which is experienced by the person directly involved in the traumatic event, vicarious trauma occurs when an individual witnesses or is exposed to the experiences of others. Witnessing this trauma can be through direct exposure to the event happening to someone else, listening to retelling of the traumatic event(s) and/or victimization, responding to the event and consuming graphic media coverage. 
  • Empathetic Response: Vicarious trauma often arises from a deep sense of empathy or compassion for the primary trauma survivor. The person experiencing vicarious trauma might put themselves in the survivor’s shoes and feel their pain, fear, and suffering. Highly sensitive people are at a higher risk.
  • Cumulative Effect: Vicarious trauma is cumulative, meaning it builds up over time as a result of repeated exposure to traumatic content or situations. The emotional toll can compound and intensify as exposure continues.

Who Is At Risk for Vicarious Trauma?

Anyone who witnesses the trauma of another is at risk for vicarious traumatization.  However, there are a few factors that would make someone more susceptible.

  • Prior traumatic experiences
  • Social isolation
  • A tendency to avoid feelings, withdraw, or assign blame to others in stressful situations
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Lack of preparation
  • Constant and intense exposure to trauma 
  •  No discussion of the trauma

 

Positive Outcomes of Vicarious Trauma

It feels so counterintuitive to say that there can be positive outcomes to vicarious trauma, but there are. Vicarious resilience and transformation can also happen.  That’s when the person exposed to secondary trauma initiates an ongoing, intentional process that results in a deepened sense of connection with others, a greater appreciation in one’s life, and a greater sense of meaning and hope. It can, however, coexist with the negative symptoms of vicarious trauma.

Negative Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma

Recognizing the symptoms of vicarious trauma is crucial, because the earlier you identify it, the greater your chance of mitigating its impact. The symptoms can vary from person to person, but in general, they resemble the symptoms of PTSD. This may include:

  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb or shut down
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Sleep problems – difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or oversleeping
  • More aches and pains, getting sick more often than usual
  • Easily distracted
  • Loss of a sense of meaning in life and/or feeling hopeless about the future
  • Relationship problems – withdrawing from friends and family, increased interpersonal conflicts, avoiding intimacy
  • Hypervigilance – feeling vulnerable or worrying excessively about potential dangers in the world and loved ones’ safety
  • Increased irritability; cynical, aggressive, explosive, or violent outbursts and behavior
  • Destructive and/or addictive behaviors –  over/under eating, substance abuse, gambling, taking unnecessary risks in sports or driving
  • Don’t want to do the things that used to be enjoyable
  • Avoidance behaviors – avoid anything and anyone that may somehow trigger a memory of the event

Coping Strategies for Vicarious Trauma

You’re recognizing signs of vicarious trauma in yourself.  Now what? First, you must remove yourself from the traumatized person’s “shoes.” Step back from the situation.  Then, you start enacting healthy coping strategies. Coping strategies help us navigate difficult situations in a healthy and adaptive manner.  They are essential to building resiliency and regain a sense of control.  They are the cornerstone to good mental health. 

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing your vulnerability to it and understanding the nature of vicarious trauma is the first step towards coping with it. 
  • Establish Boundaries: Recognize when you need to step back. Set clear boundaries for yourself, both professionally and personally. 
  • Self-care: Prioritize self-care routines, which can include exercise, meditation, journaling, or doing things that bring you joy and relaxation.
  • Talk!: This is one of the  most powerful coping mechanisms. Trauma needs a witness. Talk about your experience and how you feel about it with colleagues, friends, or a mental health professional. 
  • Supervision and Consultation: If you work in a profession where you are exposed to trauma regularly, seek supervision and consultation with experienced peers or supervisors. 
  • Self-Observation: Practicing mindfulness and relaxation exercises can help manage stress and anxiety. Techniques like deep breathing and meditation can be particularly effective.
  • Limit Exposure: We are inundated with information 24/7.  It’s essential to be selective about the content you consume. Limit exposure to distressing news or social media content related to the primary trauma.

Conclusion

Vicarious trauma is a very real thing. While the concept is typically associated with occupations that provide victim services, anyone who bears witness to another’s trauma is at risk. Given the amount of global conflict and violence we witness in our everyday lives, we are all at risk. It is essential to recognize the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma and take proactive steps to manage and cope with its impact. By practicing self-awareness, setting boundaries, prioritizing self-care, seeking support, and being mindful of your exposure, you can mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma and maintain your emotional well-being.

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