Vicarious Trauma & Trauma Work

by | Trauma, Trauma Workers, Vicarious Trauma, Work

This post may contain some non specific descriptions of trauma.

If a primary trauma is one you experience yourself, a secondary, or vicarious trauma happens when you’re exposed to the trauma of other people.

This is especially common among trauma workers.

When we think about trauma workers, we usually think about the people who work on the front lines every day – our paramedics, nurses, social workers, or police – and we’re right to – but there is an untold number of people who do not realise that they’re also trauma workers until they start feeling the effects of this kind of work.

These people might include people who work in journalism or marketing. They may include photographers, charity workers, story tellers, actors, social media managers, or educators. We might be exposed to trauma consistantly, or only in the course of certain projects.

When we are able to identify our status as a trauma worker, it means that we can look out for the effects of vicarious trauma when they arise. More importantly, we can use this knowledge to access the resources and skills we need to manage the work we do so it’s sustainable and healthy in the long term.

person wearing gold wedding band

Signs of Vicarious Trauma

When someone starts to become affected by their exposure to trauma, they may feel some or all of the following:

  • Lingering feelings of anger, rage, and sadness
  • Becoming very emotionally involved, past the point of your normal boundaries.
  • Experiencing bystander guilt, shame, and self-doubt
  • Becoming preoccupied with the situation outside of work
  • Loss of hope, pessimism, cynicism
  • Difficulty maintaining boundaries and overextending
  • Withdrawing emotionally from the situation entirely, or becoming more hostile toward hearing about trauma.

For more acute situations, someone might experience some of the more classic signs of trauma:

1. Physical

Disturbed sleep, being easily startled, being constantly alert, fatigue and exhaustion, muscle aches and general pain.

2. Emotional

Fear, numbness, detachment, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, worry, irritability.

3. Cognitive

Brain fog, intrusive thoughts and memories, nightmares, problems with memory and concentration, visual images of what happened, disorientation

4. Behavioural

Avoidance of the place it happened or where you went immediately after, isolation, loss of interest in normal activities, social withdrawal.

Experiencing some or all of these is the way a brain heals, adjusts, and makes sense out of what is happening.

photography of five people near outdoor during daytime

I’ve just figured out I’m a trauma worker. Now what?

If you’ve just figured out that you’re a trauma worker, congratulations. Welcome to the club. Sometimes it’s rewarding, sometimes it’s difficult, and it doesn’t come with a membership badge.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Find out what support is available to you.
    Your workplace has an ethical and legal responsibility to give you a psychologically safe place to work. This does not just extend to what they do after an injury occurs – it also includes what they do to prevent injury. Find out their policy, and make sure you’re using the resources that they have to keep you safe throughout the process.
  2. Get to know what you need to stay well and reduce stress.
    No workplace, cause, or project is important enough to sacrifice your health, and it’s important that you prioritise your needs and you wellness. Part of that is knowing what self care means to you, and carving out the time to practise that both inside and outside of work.
  3. Work with professionals.
    It is a requirement for therapists to have their own therapists to help them process and manage the nature of their work. I’m inclined that think that should be the case for everyone who works with trauma.
  4. Reach out to others.
    Following on from the last point, it’s important that we have a network of peers, mentors, professionals, and people outside of these experiences to rely on at all times, not just when it gets tough.

About the Author

Alicia Louise she/they Alicia is a founder of Reflex, a mental health educator, and a lived-experience advocate. She has a special interest in the intersection of mental health and community care. In her down time, she enjoys art, music, and design.

About Reflex

This article was brought to you by Reflex Response Services, a trauma counselling and support charity based in Newcastle, Australia.

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