Dealing with personal trauma is challenging, but so is helping others work through their trauma — and it may result in vicarious trauma.
If you spend your day taking care of other people, you may be taking on their stress, experiences, or even their trauma. The trauma that can occur after exposure to someone else’s trauma is called vicarious trauma.
This form of trauma is not well known, so many people experiencing it may not seek help, but there are many forms of help and support available.
Helpers can need help too.
Vicarious trauma is the accruing effect of being exposed to someone else’s trauma — trauma that you have not personally experienced, but you’ve learned about from others.
The Vicarious Trauma Institute defines vicarious trauma as the “indirect exposure to trauma through a first-hand account or narrative of a traumatic event.”
Vicarious trauma is a term typically used when talking about clinicians, such as therapists, social workers, and other professionals.
Anyone can also experience stress when hearing about a loved one’s trauma. That stress is very valid and natural, and sometimes it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health difficulties, like depression and anxiety. However, it is not the same as the concept of vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is also known by a handful of other names, including:
- secondary traumatization
- secondary trauma
- secondhand trauma
- secondary traumatic stress
Vicarious trauma is not the same as PTSD, which refers to someone experiencing or witnessing trauma directly.
While vicarious trauma and PTSD are not the same, “the symptoms [of PTSD and vicarious trauma] can be quite similar,” explains Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor in Texas who specializes in trauma.
Vicarious trauma can happen to people who engage with trauma survivors or witness traumatic events, especially on a repetitive basis.
For this reason, vicarious trauma is common among professionals known for helping others, like:
- social workers
- police officers
Symptoms of vicarious trauma can be experienced physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.
According to a 2019 review, the symptoms of vicarious trauma can include:
- unwelcome thoughts of client-induced imagery
- missing work
- social withdrawal
- avoiding traumatic disclosures from clients, leading to subpar clinical services
- negative coping skills, both personally and professionally
- hyperarousal to your safety and the safety of loved ones
- avoiding physical intimacy
- increasingly pessimistic worldview
- loss of work-related motivation
- distancing from spiritual beliefs
- reduced longevity in the field
- stress-related medical conditions
Regardless of which symptoms you may experience, it’s important to note that vicarious trauma is not showing failure or weakness. Instead, “it occurs from sympathetic engagement in a field designed to help others,” offers Phillips.
If you’re a clinician looking for support, reaching out to a therapist can be a great starting point. If you’re looking for a therapist, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.
Finding ways to seek respite, such as maximizing vacation time, can also help. This can aid in coping with caregiver stress for those who care for a family member.
“Taking time-off should be nonnegotiable for those in trauma-related helping professions,” says Phillips. “It is imperative that [they] take time away from work to engage in outside interests.”
Seeking social support can be helpful for many stressful situations and can act as a buffer for people who may experience trauma.
To connect, you can consider trusted social outlets, shared hobbies, or group activities such as exercise classes. And if you’re unsure how to start connecting, “you can begin by consulting with a colleague, supervisor, or mental health professional,” says Phillips.
For people who are experiencing stress from a family member or loved one’s trauma, certain types of therapy may be particularly helpful, such as:
Maybe you feel like you aren’t allowed to connect with a traumatic event or feel guilty that you do. In fact, that’s one of the biggest concerns Kenya Crawford, LMHC, has when treating vicarious trauma — many people think they’re not worthy of healing, and so they don’t seek support.
It’s OK to get help.
Just because you didn’t experience trauma yourself doesn’t mean what you’re experiencing isn’t real. Your experience is valid, and you deserve to heal. After all, you do so much for other people. Perhaps now is the time you can do something for yourself, too.
For additional resources, consider the following: