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Vicarious Trauma - Trauma arising from witnessing repeatedly the suffering of others

2 July 2020

"When we open our hearts to hear someone's story of devastation and betrayal, 

our cherished beliefs are challenged and we are changed." 

Karen Saakvitne & Laurie Anne Pearlman

Many people have jobs that expose them repeatedly to the suffering of other people. This includes counsellors and therapists, nurses, doctors, social-workers, firefighters, police, charity workers, and many more. 'Exposure' can include listening to graphic stories of past and present abuse, listening to stories of trauma/terror/loss, listening to stories of war atrocities, witnessing physical illness and pain, end-of-life care, and viewing images of acts of cruelty committed against adults and children as part of one's job or role (e.g. police, lawyers, social workers) to name just some of them.

Even though the trauma is happening to somebody else we can be 'vicariously' traumatised. We might show symptoms of trauma similar to the clients we are working with. This can include flashbacks of what we imagined and felt when we were told a horrible story.

Over time, the exposure to other people's trauma can have a negative impact on our well-being, our relationships and our work. If not attended to, this might render us unable to continue working in our field.  Many spousal relationships break down because of the behaviour changes that result from being vicariously traumatised by the important work people do. Behaviour changes might include poor work-life balance, emotional distancing, less socialising, anger outbursts and becoming over-protective.

Changes in ourselves might be gradual and we may not even notice until we reach braking point. If we are lucky, others point out to us that we are changing before we reach this point and we can begin to address what is happening to us.

In order to address the impact of vicarious trauma, we need to attend to our physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and professional self-care. Re-connecting with people, with what our work means to us, and with any positive changes resulting from our work are important aspects of recovery.

For useful free training, information and self-help guidance on vicarious trauma and self-care see vicarious trauma at the the Headington Institute.

Psychotherapy can be helpful in understanding the impact your work had on you and help you address these issues. 

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