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Understanding Vicarious Trauma

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma refers to the reactions or symptoms some people experience as a result of supporting others who have experienced trauma. Volunteers, social workers, emergency response workers, police etc may all be vulnerable to vicarious trauma. It is not a sign of human deficiency or weakness, but rather a symptom of caring and exposure to the trauma you witness through your work.

Common Vicarious Trauma Reactions

  • Anxiety
  • Numbness
  • Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Sadness
  • Depression
  • Self-doubt
  • Confusion
  • Shock
  • Sweating¬†
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Aches and pains
  • Chronic headaches

Other reactions may include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Distancing
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
  • Cynicism
  • Resentment
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs

Coping with Vicarious Trauna

It is important to know that your feelings are normal and natural, even though they may seem unusual. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

Personal strategies to cope:

  • Awareness: be attuned to your needs, limits, emotions and resources
  • Balance: maintain balance among activities, especially work, play and rest
  • Connection: establish and maintain connections to yourself, to others and to something larger

Organizational strategies to cope:

  • Limit the number of trauma clients seen on a daily basis
  • Regular supervision and debriefing especially when cases are particularly sensitive or overwhelming
  • Build in time for other work-related activities (eg. Administration)
  • Adopt a vicarious trauma policy in the workplace
  • Offer counselling and support through Employee Assistance Program

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.