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Are You Experiencing Vicarious Trauma?

The cost of caring.

by Kit Stone
May 25, 2020 | Health

Stay-at-home orders have pushed us onto the sidelines, watching the lives of our friends and family through laptops and mobile devices.

We've seen status updates announcing the passing of a relative. We've read firsthand accounts of friends battling the coronavirus or essential workers straining to maintain their own well-being while caring for others.

Every day brings new realities to mentally process. And our connected world makes it all feel personal.

The trauma of others

Playing witness to people enduring horrific circumstances — whether you know them or not — takes its toll, especially if there's little to nothing you can do to help. Some people experience trouble sleeping and anger, and continue to obsess over the things they aren't able to do to help others.

On the surface, this can seem like a normal response to dire circumstances, but if not treated properly, it can turn into vicarious trauma. 

"Vicarious trauma (VT), also known as compassion fatigue, refers to the cumulative psychological stress associated with working with victims or perpetrators of traumatic incidents," said Emin Gharibian, a psychologist who specializes in neuropsychological and forensic evaluations. 

In other words, vicarious trauma means you have been affected by the trauma of others. It's actually very common.

Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mental illness including trauma, explained that someone with VT can display a variety of symptoms that range from obsessing about the event and extreme guilt to being anxious or inappropriately angry at the trauma victim. 

"Trauma also expresses itself physically," Daramus said. "Stomach pain and nausea are pretty common.

"A lot of pain disorders, especially unexplainable pain, are more common in people with a history of trauma, and that includes vicarious trauma."

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) hasn't recognized VT as a mental illness, but the condition can cause impairments in people's day-to-day activities and therefore requires treatment.

"The presence of residual stress from being compassionate and empathic with victims of traumatizing incidents, if left unattended, can lead to a gradual build-up of distressing and unprocessed memories and compassion fatigue," Gharibian said.

Empathy overload

Also known as the "cost of caring," those who tend to experience vicarious trauma show deep empathy for others — and not just the people who are part of their everyday lives.

First responders, 911 dispatch operators, psychologists, social workers and other folks who work in close proximity to someone else's trauma are most commonly affected by VT.

But vicarious trauma can happen to anyone, and the digital age has only increased the chances of experiencing VT.

Illustration of an unhappy man carrying giant heavy boulder or stone. Rewire PBS Health Vicarious Trauma
Those who tend to experience vicarious trauma show deep empathy for others.  |  Credit: Adobe

People who watched the news as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11 or watched coverage of a mass shooting at a high school or workplace can experience the same symptoms as a health professional.

You're more more susceptible to experiencing VT if you have unrealistic expectations about the amount of help you can give to others, you are overly self-critical of the help that you do offer and you lack the ability to separate your personal life from your work.

One way to safeguard against VT is to stay in tune with yourself. You can recognize changes in your body and mood and address it before it becomes problematic.

Janika Joyner, a licensed clinical social worker and certified clinical trauma professional, said getting adequate rest, eating well, exercising, connecting with others, enjoying nature or finding a new hobby can help decrease symptoms.

Activities that strengthen spirituality have been proven to be effective as well.

"Organizations should foster cultures that are aware of VT and should promote the importance of staff recognizing it and being comfortable speaking about it," Joyner said.

What used to be viewed as a sign of weakness is now viewed as an occupational hazard.

"If a person is noticing strong reactions and negative changes they should not be afraid to have supervision to address their feelings and observations," Joyner said. 

Maintaining a balance

It can sound like vicarious trauma is a bad thing that should be stopped in its tracks, but you also don't want to be numb or indifferent to the struggles of others.

The world needs more compassion and empathy. The key is to maintain an emotional balance.

Jeff Nalin, a licensed clinical psychologist, and the founder and chief clinical director of Paradigm Treatment Centers suggests the following strategies to help prevent VT.

  • Awareness — Be aware of your own feelings of distress and what triggers those feelings. Keep track of your sleep patterns, muscle tension, exhaustion, mood swings and more. Understanding our personal signs of burnout helps us realize what is happening and catch ourselves before the situation gets too serious.
  • Balance — Establishing boundaries to keep your personal time and work-life separate is vital for staving off vicarious trauma. 
  • Connections — When possible, share your feelings of trauma or distress with others in similar situations.
  • Diversify — If your VT is due to caring for a loved one or stress from your work environment, find ways to mix up your routine and take breaks to give your mind and emotions rest and time to recharge. 
  • Professional Help — As always, if you find that these strategies aren't providing the relief you need and you continue to struggle with vicarious trauma, you should seek out professional help. 

Life can be a bit extra at times. Visit our Taking Care of You collection for a library of expert insights and personal experiences to help.

Kit Stone
Kit Stone is a multimedia storyteller from the West Coast. If she's not working on the next stamp in her passport, you can find her spending time with her family, tucked away with a good book or binge-watching her favorite shows.
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