The Themes and Risk Factors of Vicarious Trauma

The rewards of working alongside individuals who have experienced trauma can include the opportunity to witness courage, growth, change and the resilience of the human spirit. At the same time, we also bear witness to pain and suffering, which can transform our inner experience, alter our worldview, and profoundly impact our well-being.

Contributing Factors

Researchers began documenting the nature of this impact on service providers working with people affected by trauma in the early 1990’s. Saakvitne and Pearlman identify several factors and situational aspects of the nature of this work that contribute to Vicarious Trauma including the following:

  • Confidentiality – Taking the stories we hear, and the imagery that may go along with them home with us, but we are unable to talk about it with loved ones.
  • Working with trauma oftentimes means working with people who are engaging in self destructive or harmful behaviours and who may be suicidal and/or highly dissociative, which can be very difficult to witness and manage.
  • Witnessing the re-victimization of clients can add to the level of helplessness a practitioner may feel.
  • Aspects of the helper’s personality including temperament, psychological needs, coping style and defenses (i.e., dissociating during a session because what is being shared is too painful).
  • Our own trauma histories- am I reacting as a trauma survivor or as a helper? Certain stories may bring back memories of feeling helpless or hopeless or in despair.
  • Re-enactments or re-victimizations that occur unintentionally and unconsciously.
  • Social and cultural factors that question the validity of the issue or acknowledge the importance of the work, which often affects the resources allocated to support the helper and the work in general.[1]

Warning Signs

The following list includes some of the ways working with people affected by trauma can impact service providers: A service provider may experience one, or two or even many of the themes included in this list:[2]

  • Feeling hopeless and helpless
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Hypervigilance
  • Diminished creativity
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Minimizing our feelings / physical symptoms we may be experiencing
  • Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments
  • Inability to listen/deliberate avoidance – isolating ourselves from our supports or coping
  • Dissociative moments
  • Sense of persecution
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anger and cynicism (negative thinking)
  • Inability to empathize
  • Addictions
  • Grandiosity

[1] Saakvitne K. W. & Pearlman, L. A. Transforming the Pain documentary.

[2] Van Dernoot Lipsky, Laura with Burk, Connie. (2009). Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.