Vicarious Trauma

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a term that goes by several names – compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and trauma exposure response to name a few. This often refers to the indirect trauma that can occur when helpers are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories told by clients and patients. Vicarious trauma is the experience of bearing witness to the atrocities committed against another. It is the result of absorbing the sight, smells, sound, touch and feel of the stories told in detail by victims searching for a way to release their own pain. It can also be seen as the energy that comes from being in the presence of trauma and it is how our nervous system reacts to profound despair, rage, and pain.[1]

Van Dernoot Lipsky and Burk[2] go on to define vicarious trauma as the transformation that takes place within us as a result of exposure to the suffering of other living beings or the planet. Therefore, they also implicate environmental and ecological suffering and its effects.

Saakvitne and Pearlman explain Vicarious Trauma further[3]:

  • It is an inevitable part of the work and can be seen as an occupational hazard.
  • Vicarious trauma happens to everyone who engages empathically and is not the fault of the client nor does it necessarily reflect unresolved issues with the helper.
  • If we’re open emotionally – in the way we need to be to help – we’re going to be affected.
  • Ultimately, our heart needs to be open to do this work which opens the door to Vicarious Trauma.
  • It is cumulative – across clients – not just one client’s history or pain.
  • It’s pervasive – effects all aspects of the helper. We carry our vicarious trauma with us, outside of our professional lives.
  • It’s very individual – a factor for all helpers, however what it’s going to look like and feel like for each helper is unique.

Why is it important to know about Vicarious Trauma?

It is important to acknowledge the impact of being in a helping profession for a number of reasons. Primarily, knowledge of vicarious trauma and its effects can help us view these experiences as an occupational health risk rather than a character flaw of the helper. In doing so, we can look to solutions for vicarious trauma that can be done both at the individual level as well as organizationally.

How is vicarious trauma different from burn out?

It is important to distinguish between burn out and vicarious trauma. Burn out is often related to systemic issues of the work such as a lack of resources, high caseloads, a lack of space, or inadequate equipment. It is often associated with lower job satisfaction, a feeling of being powerless or overwhelmed, and little decision-making ability in the workplace. In some cases, burn-out stems from a conflict of our ethics in the workplace. In other words, our values may not be in line with the mission and values of the organization that we work in. An example may include a work setting that makes top-down decisions that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the client. This is often the result of economic policies and budgetary constraints that focus on quantity rather than quality of service. Therefore, the inability to do our work the way that we see as appropriate can create burn out.

Below is a side-by-side diagram to illustrate the distinctions:

Burn OutVicarious Trauma
Related to systemic issues of the workplace.Primarily related to the impact of the helper working with survivors of trauma. It may also be related to larger social systems and health disparities. 
Lack of resources, high caseloads, lack of space.The result of absorbing stories told in detail by clients and participants as a way of releasing their pain.
Low job satisfaction; feeling powerless and overwhelmed.Job satisfaction often not a factor; in fact, it may be quite high.
Values/ethics not in line with the workplace creating an ethical dilemma.Related to how our neurobiology responds to profound despair, rage, and pain.

[1] Adapted from Guidebook on Vicarious Trauma: Recommended Solutions for Anti-Violence Workers was prepared by Jan I. Richardson of the Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children in London, Ontario for the Family Violence Prevention Unit, Health Canada. Retrieved from Trauma (Colour) E.qxd (

[2] Van Dernoot Lipsky, Laura with Burk, Connie (2009). Truama Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. San Fransicco: Berrett – Koehler Publishers Inc.

[3] Vicarious Traumatization. San Francisco, California, USA. Kanopy Streaming, 2014.