Wholeness Healing Today

Trauma Informed Care Vicarious Trauma What is it and Why Does it Matter?

The COVID-19 Pandemic brought with it an experience of collective trauma like no other. Most, if not all, experienced the day-to-day impact of not knowing what would happen next. Trauma leaves us with an overwhelming feeling of losing control in a situation where you or someone you love could be seriously injured or even die. The collective trauma experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic was dysregulating for most. It was also uncomfortable, anxiety-producing, and exhausting. Most grew irritable about the next updates and the next pivots we would have to make collectively. Many of us took our irritability, boredom, and annoyance out on one another.

Up until this point in time, the 21st century had never experienced anything like this type of collective dysregulation as a society. Consequently, a part of the collective trauma experience resulted in the spread of secondary and vicarious trauma. Secondary trauma is the experience of listening and responding to someone else’s trauma one time. The concept is simple: a person can be traumatized themselves after hearing about trauma from someone else. Vicarious trauma is what happens when a person hears about peoples’ trauma repeatedly different stories or different forms of a similar story. It is a term used to describe “holding other peoples’ suffering,” which shifts to a change in attitude about life and one’s own purpose. It is one thing to hear a traumatizing story once. It is difficult to hear a different yet equally powerful version of a similar story repeatedly all day long. While much of this dust has settled, many in certain professions are still dealing with the impact that this collective trauma created by treating waves of secondary and vicarious trauma.

Teachers and administrators, nurses, doctors, firefighters and first responders, paramedics, grocery store workers, daycare providers, mental health professionals, and clergy have experienced secondary trauma that led to vicarious trauma in the past three years. Vicarious trauma can lead to burnout and leaving a career. There is a mass exodus happening nationally within the teaching profession. Most professionals don’t even know that they have or are experiencing it. We have become so desensitized that you don’t even have to work in a helping profession to experience secondary trauma leading to vicarious trauma. Just watch the news. Just hop on your TikTok, Facebook or Insta scroll. Just talk to a kid about going to school these days. Many are impacted, dysregulated, and trying to help others regulate.

The first step to treating secondary and vicarious trauma leading to burn-out is to identify what it is and whether you have it. ‘Naming’ the experience for yourself is powerful and the first step in healing.

Here are the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma (Alameda Depart of Bx Health and Trauma Informed Care):
*Generalized fear
*Sleep disturbance
*Change in worldview
*Affect arousal (hyper/hypo)
*Changes in feelings of trust
*A diminished sense of hope
*Intrusive memories or thoughts
*Imagery blending (taking on images of clients)
*Pervasive cynicism/pessimism
*Decreased interest in client’s care (aka compassion fatigue)
*Feeling a lack of control
*Intimacy issues
*Relationship issues (e.g., change of support)
*Self-esteem issues (low)
*Decreased feeling of safety
*Substance use/abuse for emotional regulation
*Mood disturbance
*Social withdrawal
*Irritability, low frustration tolerance

If you meet any of these symptoms, you may suffer vicarious trauma. After identifying that you are struggling with it, explore how you are coping. Are you coping with drugs and alcohol by scrolling mindlessly on social media while your family is in the same room or by avoiding your friends? The British Medical Association provides the following helpful strategies to cope with vicarious trauma:

*Increase your self-observation – recognize and track your signs of stress, vicarious trauma, and burnout.

*Take care of yourself emotionally – engage in relaxing and self-soothing activities, nurturing self-care (massage, yoga, and activities that down-regulate the nervous system).

*Look after your physical and mental well-being; exercise and eat right.

*Maintain a healthy work/life balance – have outside interests that fulfill you.

*Be realistic about what you can accomplish – avoid wishful thinking.

*Don’t take responsibility for others’ well-being but supply them with tools to look after themselves. (if the plane goes down, put your oxygen mask on first).

*Balance your caseload – a mix of more and less traumatized clients, victims, and non-victims.

*Take regular breaks, and take time off when needed.

*Seek social support from colleagues and family members.

*Use a buddy system – particularly important for less experienced professionals.

*Use peer support and opportunities to debrief.

*Take up training opportunities.

*If needed, take up a time-limited group or individual therapy.

If you or someone you know suffers from secondary or vicarious trauma, know you are not alone. All types of traumas can be healed. Treat yourself with care while you explore and contact us if you or someone you know needs support.

Works Cited

© 2013 Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, online source (2023), https://alamedacountytraumainformedcare.org/trauma-informed-care/

The British Medical Association, online source 2023, https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/your-wellbeing/vicarious-trauma/vicarious-trauma-signs-and-strategies-for-coping



  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
    Clinical Director


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