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Vicarious Trauma: What it is, and How to Heal From It

Professionals who work alongside victims of trauma listen to heavy stories day in and day out. These narratives can take a toll, sometimes causing a phenomenon now known as "vicarious trauma." Also known as compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma is known as the "cost of caring" for others (Figley, 1982). These professionals often absorb the full weight of traumatic stories and experience the trauma of the people they serve first-hand. They become "witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured." (American Counseling Association, n.d.). 

When working with a vulnerable population like children and young adults who have previously experienced trauma — such as those often found in foster, adoptive, or kinship situations — it is common for professionals to develop such vicarious trauma through their support efforts. It is also possible for parents of these individuals to develop vicarious trauma through listening to their children's stories and dealing with resulting behaviors. Therefore, it is imperative that professionals and parents are able to recognize signs of vicarious trauma in themselves, and know simple ways to combat it.

According to the American Counseling Association, signs and symptoms for vicarious trauma can include:

  • Difficulty talking about their feelings
  • Free floating anger and/or irritation
  • Startle effect/being jumpy
  • Over-eating or under-eating
  • Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Losing sleep over patients
  • Worried that they are not doing enough for their clients
  • Dreaming about their clients/their clients' trauma experiences
  • Diminished joy toward things they once enjoyed
  • Feeling trapped by their work as a counselor (crisis counselor)
  • Diminished feelings of satisfaction and personal accomplishment
  • Dealing with intrusive thoughts of clients with especially severe trauma histories
  • Feelings of hopelessness associated with their work/clients
  • Blaming others

Thankfully, there are simple ways to both prevent and soften the effects of vicarious trauma. According to Trippany et al., the ABC's of anticipating and protecting oneself from vicarious trauma are Awareness, Balance, and Connection (2004). Professionals and parents should be aware that they are at a higher risk for vicarious trauma; have a proper balance of work- and personal-related tasks; engage in personal counseling, emotional support from a loved one, or journal writing to unload any burdens you may be holding onto.

Self-care is a vital part of preventing and treating vicarious trauma. Often, self-care is not thought of as preventative; however, vigilant self-care allows a professional or parent to increase their mental health and better care for those who depend on them. Mindfulness and meditation are two simple ways to increase self-care. Regular exercise and therapy have also proved extremely beneficial.

The American Counseling Association further suggests that transforming the pain of vicarious trauma is an effective way to process it. One must transform the negative impact of the work into a positive one. Suggestions for this transformation include creating meaning, infusing meaning into current activities, challenging negative beliefs, and participating in community building. In short, anything that can encourage the professional to find meaning in their lives outside of their line of work will help the impact of vicarious trauma.

When dealing with vicarious trauma, it is imperative to remember that you are not alone. By recognizing the symptoms and signs, treatment, and prevention, you are a step closer to protecting your mental health.

Abby Zerull is the Development Coordinator at Adoption Network Cleveland.