Vicarious Trauma and What To Do About It

Many people who work in a helping profession experience secondary trauma, also called vicarious trauma, at some point in their career. It is important to be able to recognize the signs so that it can be addressed, as unaddressed secondary trauma can lead to a decrease in the level of care one is able to provide.

Secondary trauma arises from indirect exposure to trauma, often by hearing the stories of primary trauma survivors. A helping professional often must hear about a survivor’s traumatic experience and hold space for their pain, which can lead to a professionals’ own cognitive and emotional reaction to that story. This process can occur as a reaction to a particular client’s experience or happen over time because of compounding stressors. The indirect exposure to trauma can lead to symptoms such as nightmares and sleep problems, changes in perception or memory, increased anxiety, or depression, feeling numb or detached, and an increased feeling of burnout at work, among others. These symptoms may cause a provider to be short with clients, or to feel calloused and have a lack of empathy for others.

To mitigate the effects of secondary trauma, those in helping professions should be proactive in practicing self-care and healthy lifestyle choices. Exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep all play into one’s overall health and can help in building overall resilience to stress. Other measures of self-care can include therapy or talking to a trusted friend or colleague, meditation, time in nature, or having a creative outlet. Self-care may look different for everyone- almost anything can be an act of self-care if it is done with intention and mindfulness.

If you are suffering from secondary trauma, speak to a trusted person and develop a plan towards healing. Working as a helping professional is not easy, and the world needs as many effective helpers as it can get.