Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional and psychological changes that can occur when people engage with the trauma experiences of others. Recognising the signs is crucial for people working in caregiving roles, as it allows them to understand the potential impact on their own wellbeing and take proactive steps to safeguard themselves from ongoing problems. Let’s take a closer look at vicarious trauma. 

Understanding Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional and psychological impact experienced by individuals who work closely with traumatised individuals. It can occur when the exposure to others’ traumatic experiences creates trauma-related symptoms in the carer.

Professionals in helping fields, such as psychologists, therapists, social workers, and first responders, are at higher risk of vicarious trauma. Additionally, individuals who provide ongoing support to trauma survivors, like family members or close friends, can also experience vicarious trauma.

Warning signs and symptoms

Vicarious trauma can manifest in various ways, including intrusive thoughts, emotional distress, heightened anxiety, hypervigilance, nightmares, and changes in worldview. It is essential to recognize these signs early on. Let’s take a closer look:

1. Intrusive thoughts: Having distressing thoughts or mental images related to clients’ traumatic experiences that intrude upon your daily life.

2. Emotional distress: Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or emotionally dysregulated when exposed to trauma-related content or triggers.

3. Heightened anxiety: Experiencing increased levels of anxiety, hypervigilance, or a sense of constant unease.

4. Hypervigilance: Being excessively alert or on edge, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats or dangers.

5. Nightmares: Having recurring nightmares related to the traumatic experiences of clients or being exposed to traumatic content.

6. Changes in worldview: Shifts in belief systems or worldviews as a result of being exposed to the suffering and trauma of others.

7. Avoidance behaviours: Engaging in behaviours or activities to avoid reminders of trauma, such as avoiding certain clients or situations.

8. Guilt or shame: Feeling guilty for not being able to prevent or alleviate the suffering of others or experiencing shame related to your work and work-related experiences.

9. Emotional exhaustion: Feeling emotionally drained or depleted, finding it difficult to regulate emotions or feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

It’s important to note that these symptoms can vary from person to person and may present differently in different individuals. If someone is experiencing a significant number of these symptoms, it’s advisable for them to seek professional support and guidance to address and manage their condition effectively.

Safeguarding against vicarious trauma:

To mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma, consider the following strategies:

1. Practice self-awareness: Engage in regular self-reflection in relation to the symptoms of vicarious trauma. Take time to reflect on your own emotional well-being and any signs of vicarious trauma you may be experiencing. Pay attention to changes in mood, sleep patterns, or overall functioning. Being self-aware allows you to identify potential issues early on and take necessary steps to address them.

2. Establish healthy boundaries: Set clear boundaries between your professional and personal life. Identify the emotional capacity you have and communicate that to clients or patients. Prioritise self-care and ensure you have time and space to recharge outside of work. By maintaining healthy boundaries, you can prevent the overwhelming impact of vicarious trauma.

3. Engage in self-care practices: Make self-care a priority to promote your own well-being. Engage in activities that bring you joy, relaxation, and rejuvenation. This can include exercise, meditation, spending time with loved ones, pursuing hobbies, or engaging in creative outlets. Pursuing hobbies or engaging in activities that bring you fulfillment and joy can be rejuvenating and help counterbalance the effects of vicarious trauma. 

4. Exercise and move your body: Regular exercise can help reduce stress and improve mental health. Yoga or pilates can also be helpful for building mind-body connections and helping you to check in with any tension or stress you might carry in the body, as well as building awareness of your feelings, building capacity to be present, and focussing on your breath. 

5. Get mindful: Practicing mindfulness techniques can enhance your ability to stay present and grounded.

6. Seek supervision or consultation to process challenging cases and gain support: Consult with a supervisor or seek professional supervision to process challenging cases and emotions that arise from your work. Supervision provides a safe space to discuss and reflect on your experiences, gain insights, and receive guidance. It can be instrumental in helping you navigate the impact of vicarious trauma and develop coping strategies.

7. Develop a peer support network: Cultivate a small group of colleagues who understand the demands of your profession and create a meeting each fortnight or month with one another. Use these regular peer meetings to share experiences, challenges, and successes. Having a supportive community allows you to feel understood, validated, and supported, which can help mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma. It also allows others to notice when things might be becoming overwhelming for you, and they can check-in with you.

Professional help is available

Psychologists can assist individuals experiencing vicarious trauma by providing specialised support. This may include therapy sessions focused on processing trauma, exploring coping mechanisms, and developing self-care strategies.

Remember, recognising and addressing vicarious trauma is crucial for the well-being of both professionals and those whom they serve. By understanding that vicarious trauma can and does occur, and by implementing appropriate self-care strategies and monitoring, you can can continue providing compassionate care into the longterm while also safeguarding your own mental health.

If you think you would benefit from seeing a psychologist to address any of the points raised in this blog post, get in touch with us at Sydney City Psychology today. We would love to hear from you and to support you to live and work well.