What is vicarious traumatization (VT)?
Vicarious traumatization, also known as secondary traumatization or insidious trauma, is a mental condition in which an individual who did not personally experience a trauma absorbs the stressful feelings of a directly traumatized person. Vicarious trauma is one of three differing disorders that make up second-hand shock syndrome, which also includes compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. People who experience vicarious trauma often experience symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Vicarious trauma occurs after a person has discussed the traumatic experience with the trauma survivor in depth and experiences intensely empathetic feelings. The feelings can be so powerful that an individual integrates the survivor's trauma into his or her own life. Individuals who are at risk of vicarious traumatization include therapists, counselors, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, friends, family members, and other secondary witnesses to trauma.
Certain factors contribute to an individual's chance of experiencing vicarious trauma. The condition is a direct result of feelings of empathy. Therefore, a person's private history can influence how he or she interprets another person's trauma. An individual who has things in common with the traumatized victim is more likely to experience vicarious trauma than someone with little in common with the victim. For professionals, work-related stress such as high workloads or office tensions can play a part in vicarious trauma. The repeated exposure to clients' trauma and the pressure of confidentiality also puts professionals at risk. Care-giving professionals are trained to manage their empathetic feelings, but outside influences such as personal issues that relate to the victims' problems can make emotional control for professionals difficult.
Individuals experiencing vicarious trauma exhibit a number of symptoms that parallel those observed in directly traumatized individuals. Common stress-related symptoms include anger, nervousness, over- or under-eating, difficulty sleeping, sadness, and difficulty discussing emotions. The stress often affects individuals' job performance but can also have an impact on their personal lives by invading their sense of trust, safety, and independence. Vicarious trauma can also affect people's memories and perceptions of others and themselves. Vicariously traumatized individuals tend to experience a loss of self-worth and become disinterested in their ambitions, often leading to thoughts of suicide. Many individuals who experience vicarious trauma tend to minimize their feelings, believing their reactions are unwarranted. If left untreated, vicarious trauma can last for months and sometimes years.
Vicarious trauma symptoms are often very similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Secondary witnesses have been known to experience flashbacks, nightmares, and other invasive thoughts. Certain social situations can trigger stress and anxiety, causing the vicariously traumatized person to avoid places and people that bring on such feelings. Vicarious trauma also causes feelings of paranoia and fear, putting the individuals in hypervigilant states in which they are easily startled.
Within the helping profession, vicarious trauma is often experienced simultaneously with compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress. These three disorders encompass what is known as second-hand shock syndrome. All three disorders are similar but have key differences. Compassion fatigue is a disorder in which professionals have been exposed to so much secondary trauma that they become emotionally exhausted. Over time, professionals can lose their ability to empathize with victims. Compassion fatigue can lead to professional inadequacy, especially if professionals begin to feel apathy about their clients' problems. An uninterested outlook not only affects the way a professional handles a victim's situation, but it can also affect the victim if he or she senses the listener's indifference.
Secondary traumatic stress occurs when people experience trauma indirectly through the victims' firsthand accounts. This disorder is a natural process whereby secondary witnesses of trauma automatically express empathy as they listen to the accounts. Secondary traumatic stress often manifests itself in unpredictable circumstances, such as when a friend's spouse suddenly leaves the marriage. Friends and family members of traumatized individuals are more likely to experience secondary traumatic stress than helping professionals are. The automatic manifestation of empathy distinguishes secondary traumatic stress from vicarious trauma, which occurs despite professionals' attempts to control their feelings.
Individuals are encouraged to take certain actions when they feel they are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma. Precautionary measures such as self-care assessments help specialists identify if they are feeling levels of empathy and compassion beyond what is considered professional. Other methods that professionals can employ to avoid vicarious trauma include taking breaks from work in order to recuperate. In general, people who believe they are absorbing other people's trauma should engage in recreational activities they enjoy. Relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation help with easing troubled minds. Outdoor activities and exposure to sunlight increase endorphin levels and aid in taking the mind off work. If vicarious traumatization becomes overwhelming, individuals should seek professional help.
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