Whether you are a crisis counsellor working with survivors full time, a friend of someone who has been traumatised, or are simply overwhelmed by the mass of terrible realities that filter through your newsfeed every day, you are vulnerable to vicarious traumatisation (VT).
What is Vicarious Traumatisation?
VT is a stress reaction experienced by those who have not directly (personally) experienced a traumatic event, but have exposure to a traumatic incident through the accounts of others. In other words, people suffering from VT have been indirectly exposed to a very threatening situation which has caused a shift in the way that they experience themselves and the world around them[i]. This causes them to experience the world as an overwhelmingly harmful and dangerous place, and experience others as threatening and untrustworthy. Although not all people exposed to such traumatic accounts develop VT, it is common in highly violent contexts[ii] like South Africa.
How to recognise Vicarious Traumatisation:
Research suggests that the process of VT is very similar to that of survivors who have experienced trauma directly. This includes the experience of many of the symptoms specified within the criteria stipulated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Some of the symptoms to look out for include:
- Intrusive thoughts and images of the traumatic incident and/or re-experiencing details of the trauma;
- An avoidance of emotions (numbing), intimacy and activities you once found enjoyable;
- Social withdrawal and an increased concern for your personal safety;
- Heightened emotional agitation: most commonly experienced as intense emotional responses such as anxiety, sadness, anger and irritability;
- Physical complaints, exhaustion, agitation, sleeplessness and nightmares[iii].
These symptoms prevent the individual from functioning optimally and also make them more vulnerable to developing other psychological disorders.
What are the dangers of Vicarious Traumatisation?
VT has a troubling double effect:
Firstly, for those suffering from it, VT is incredibly painful. As mentioned above, the symptoms strongly resemble primary PTSD, yet without the overt incident of a personal trauma, these symptoms often get misinterpreted or simply ignored all together. In addition to this, people occupying the “helper” role often feel this role requires them to be “superhuman” and any signs of vulnerability or emotionality are seen as weakness, inadequacy or incompetence[iv]. This dichotomy between those who help and those who need help is very dangerous as it prevents us from seeking assistance when we feel overwhelmed or distressed.
Secondly, VT has very serious consequences for those survivors we are trying to assist by consistently undermining our ability to provide for their basic needs in recovery. Herman (1992) describes various stages of recovery through which the survivor needs to mend the different facilities that were damaged during the trauma: “trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity and intimacy”.[v]This process requires the caregiver or friend to be consistently present, empathetic and accepting. Unfortunately, VT make these tasks nearly impossible for those who are experiencing it.
Recovery from trauma requires a healing relationship. Survivors need to recover from the alienation and isolation of the traumatic event and form new connections with people. The first person to establish a renewed connection with the survivor tends to be the primary caregiver (whether it be a family member, close friend, or counsellor). This, however, becomes very difficult if the carer is experiencing VT. The increased anxiety and arousal and the avoidance symptoms associated with VT often leaves caregivers numb, detached, irritable or angry. These negative emotions make it very difficult for us to have empathy, be open, caring or affectionate with the person we are trying to assist, and this severely undermines our ability to form a close, safe and trusting bond with them[vi].
In addition to this, survivors need to experience (re)empowerment. Taking charge of their recovery is the first step to re-establishing control over their lives. Herman states “others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection and care, but not cure” (p. 133). Caregivers experiencing VT are often inclined to try to “fix” those they are supporting. Crippling anxiety and depression makes these caregivers desperate to solve others’ problems as a way of alleviating their own distress. This “if you feel better, I feel better” strategy often leaves survivors feeling at best misunderstood, and at worst, re-traumatised by re-experiencing a similar sense of lack of control that they did during their traumatic experience(s). Allowing survivors to re-establish a sense of autonomy in their lives, and independently redevelop the personal competencies they need to achieve this, requires a degree of emotional consistency and restraint that VT hinders in those that suffer from it.
Although we commonly remark that fatigue, frustration and even depression just “come with the job” in helping professions, as seen by the consequences above, classifying VT as an inevitable professional hazard is not wise[vii]. Recognising and understanding VT is one of the best ways to ensure that we both protect ourselves from harm and simultaneously remain open, empathetic and supportive to those survivors who need us.
Simóne is a PhD student in Media Studies at Rhodes University, with a background in critical psychology. Her research interests include gender, identity and consumer culture, trauma and neglect, and transformative pedagogies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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[i] Schauben, L. J., & Frazier, P. A. (1995). Vicarious trauma. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19(1), 49.
[ii] Pearlman, L. & Mac Ian, P. (1995). Vicarious Traumatization: An Empirical Study of the Effects of Trauma Work on Trauma Therapists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26(6) 558-565.
[iii] Lerias, D., & Byrne, M. K. (2003). Vicarious traumatization: symptoms and predictors. Stress and Health: Journal of The International Society For The Investigation Of Stress, 19(3), 129-138. doi:10.1002/smi.969
[iv] Howlett, S. L., & Collins, A. (2014). Vicarious traumatisation: Risk and resilience among crisis support volunteers in a community organisation. South African Journal of Psychology, 44(2), 180-190. https://www.academia.edu/7086308/Vicarious_traumatisation_risk_and_resilience_among_crisis_support_volunteers_in_a_community_organisation
[v] Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: From domestic violence to political terror. New York: Basic Books. p. 133.
[vi] Trippany, R., White Kress, V. & Wilcoxon, S. (2004). Preventing Vicarious Trauma: What Counselors Should Know When Working With Trauma Survivors. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 31-37.
[vii] Figley, C. (2002). Treating Compassion Fatigue. New York: Routledge.