Vicarious trauma is a very real threat to the wellbeing of those employed in a helping or people oriented profession, writes Brisbane Psychologist Trudy Sheffield.
Do you ever feel like you are “exhausted”, detaching from the work you love, or becoming numb to the emotional impact of who and what you deal with on a daily basis?
What is Vicarious Trauma?
People in helping professions often hear, read, or are otherwise exposed to stories of trauma, becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured. Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue of this exposure.
It is important not to confuse vicarious trauma with “burnout”. Burnout is generally something that happens over time, and a change, such as time off or a new and sometimes different job, can take care of burnout or improve it.
The nature of trauma or counselling-oriented work is particularly stressful when it involves listening to detailed descriptions of very painful, often horrific events; it may also involve helpers re-enacting survivor’s early experiences of trauma and betrayal.
There is no doubt that hearing and thinking about the stories one hears can continue well after the client has left the therapeutic interaction.
Historically, therapists’ reactions to client traumas were regarded as either burnout or countertransference.
Instead, currently, the term vicarious traumatisation (VT) is used to describe therapists’ trauma reactions resulting from exposure to clients’ traumatic experiences.
VT is defined as the cumulative transformative effect on the helper, of working with survivors of traumatic life events, both positive and negative.
Are You in a Helping Profession?
Vicarious traumatisation recognises that working with trauma survivors greatly affects the helper, and that we must address the effects in order to protect both helper and clients. VT is unavoidable and is the natural consequence of being human, connecting to and caring about our clients, as we see the effects of trauma on their lives.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE! This is important to recognize and manage.
The single most important factor in the success or failure of trauma work, relates to the attention paid to the experience and the needs of the helper. We cannot meet the needs of our clients when we are overriding our own.
Vicarious Traumatisation can affect how therapists relate to their families, friends, and partners. Furthermore, the therapist may experience changes in esteem for themselves and for others.
VT impacts on areas of psychological need including: safety, trust, esteem, intimacy and control. The signs and symptoms of VT include:
- Emotional numbing
- Social withdrawal
- Work-related nightmares
- Feelings of despair and hopelessness
- Loss of sense of spirituality
- Increasingly negative view of the world
- Reduced sense of respect for your clients
- Loss of enjoyment of sexual activity
- No time or energy for yourself
- Feeling that you can’t discuss work with family or friends
- Finding that you talk about work all the time (can’t escape)
- Sense of disconnection from your loved ones
- Increased sense of danger (reduced sense of safety)
- Increased fear for safety of children or loved ones
- Sense of cynicism or pessimism
- Increased illness or fatigue
- Increased absenteeism
- Greater problems with boundaries
- Difficulties making decisions
- Reduced productivity
- Reduced motivation for your work
- Loss of sense of control over your work and your life
- Lowered self esteem, lowered sense of competence in your work
- Difficulties trusting others
- Lessened interest in spending time alone or reflecting on your experiences at work.
Managing Vicarious Trauma: Self Care for Professionals
If you are in a “helping” profession, the single biggest factor associated with vicarious trauma is exposure to any trauma material, written, verbal or interpersonal.
It is very important that professional staff access supervision and advice in identifying and managing vicarious trauma, and developing a personal, meaningful self care strategy and VT plan.
A robust plan to manage vicarious trauma or workplace stress might include:
- Anticipating vicarious trauma and protecting oneself;
- Addressing signs of vicarious trauma;
- Transforming the pain of vicarious trauma.
Transforming VT includes things you do to turn the negative impact of the work into a connection with some positive aspects of meaning and community, with strategies such as:
- Creating meaning;
- Infusing meaning in other activities;
- Challenging negative beliefs;
- Self validation and acknowledgement.
For those in any “helping” profession, it is extremely important to invest in yourself. Intervention will assist to identify workplace risk factors associated with VT, strategies to counter distortions about self, others and society, and most importantly, develop a meaningful self care plan.
If you are looking for a psychologist with experience in this field, I have helped many employed in helping professions to identify and manage workplace risk factors and burnout, but most importantly, vicarious trauma.
Author: Trudy Sheffield, B Beh Sc (1st Class Hons).
Trudy Sheffield is a Brisbane psychologist with a passion for assisting others in helping professions, to address their professional needs and practice with balance, insight, self care and reflection.
To make an appointment with Trudy Sheffield, freecall 1800 877 924 or try online booking – Mt Gravatt today