The Impacts of Vicarious Trauma

Disruption in Worldview / Spirituality

Vicarious Trauma can disrupt our worldview affecting our beliefs about the self and others.  Our deepest sense of who we are in the world, what the world is all about and our connection with something beyond ourselves can be impacted by Vicarious Trauma.

  • Believing that the world is a dangerous place or that people are inherently bad
  • Feeling like violence is inevitable and wondering “when is it my turn?”
  • Despair of humanity, cynicism, feeling hopeless/helpless
  • Believing people can’t get better

Intrusive Imagery, Sensory Responses and Behavioural Manifestations

  • Having other people’s memories come to you
  • Experiencing literal bodily sensations (such as pain, numbness, headaches, gastrointestinal issues etc.) that those with whom you are working are having
  • Avoiding social contact, feeling isolated or withdrawal
  • Numbing out (disconnection, avoidance)
  • Addictions

Disconnection and Difficulty Self-Regulating

  • Difficulty feeling connected to others that love you
  • Difficulty believing that you are deserving and worth loving
  • Not being able to feel grounded or that the world is tolerable and safe
  • Hypersensitive to any depictions of violence in the media

Boundaries Issues

  • Taking on other’s problems or difficulty setting limits
  • Developing overly rigid and strict boundaries to prevent other people from getting close

Professional Impact

As a result of the personal toll vicarious trauma takes on the individual, it impacts our ability to be present (for our clients and our colleagues) and to make sound decisions that are safe and ethical. Unaddressed, it can lead to:

  • Violating boundaries with clients (i.e., we may be needy in ways we don’t realize and risk looking to get those needs met in therapy- care taking needs or intimacy)
  • Ethical breaches
  • Damaging therapies, diagnoses, or responding to clients in ways that are harmful by not listening, tuning out, not being totally present or even dissociating, because the stories are just too painful
  • Taking our frustrations out on colleagues and the potential harm that colleagues face when we can no longer support them as a result

Vicarious Trauma is a workplace injury that is inevitable to anyone who engages empathically with trauma survivors. Just as PTSD is on a continuum, so is Vicarious Trauma. The more traumatic material the provider is aware of, the more likely they are to develop Vicarious Trauma, especially if their capacity to process the information is limited due to an overload of traumatic experiences and an accumulation of individual, environmental and systemic factors mentioned above.

The effects of Vicarious Trauma are cumulative and pervasive, evident in all aspects of the helper’s life, both professionally and personally. The impact, however, is very individual. What it will look like and feel like is very different for everyone. The effects and changes that result from exposure to trauma can seem slight and perhaps barely noticeable, while others can be profound and life-altering. It is important to be aware of the factors that may further increase our risk of Vicarious Traumatization.

We know for example that we bring our own histories including past trauma to the work and that increases the risk of further traumatization, especially when it remains unacknowledged. As with PTSD, shame and secrecy can increase the suffering. Although some of the risk factors are in fact out of the service provider’s control, it is important to be able to distinguish between what is and what isn’t so that we can focus on doing what we can to stay well.

[1] Adapted from Saakvitne, K. W. & Pearlman, L. (1996). Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. The Traumatic Institute/Center for Adult and Adolescent Psychotherapy. New York: Norton.