There is more awareness about trauma today than ever before. However, one piece of this emotional puzzle often gets lost in the shuffle. Of course, trauma can affect anyone who undergoes a horrific event or series of events. But it goes further than that. People who witness traumatic events — especially those who are exposed on a regular basis — are at risk for vicarious trauma.
Vicarious or secondhand trauma is a common cause of long-term mental health issues. It can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Your brain and body can react as if the trauma happened directly to you — because, in a way, it is.
4 Examples of Vicarious Trauma
Of course, vicarious trauma is a diverse collection of possibilities. Thus, it’s not possible to list all possible examples. The four below, however, will give you a solid idea of the scope and impact of this issue.
- First Responders: These folks voluntarily enter crisis zones on a daily basis. They may tell you that they’re “used to it” but it rarely works that way. Police, Firefighters, EMS workers and Doctors have all personally described to me the wear and tear their jobs take on their psyche.
- War Zone: You do not have to be physically wounded in a war zone to leave with emotional scars. The potential carnage you can witness is enough to cause long-term damage. This could be a factor for journalists, warriors and anyone who grew up in a war setting.
- Violent Crime: Relentless exposure to crime victims means you regularly hear stories from traumatized people. You might personally witness violence. But even just being inundated by media coverage can seriously effect people. It can lead to a sense of inevitability that you or someone you love will be next.
- Domestic Abuse: Watching someone in your own home being abused, or hearing vivid details about abuse, and not being able to stop it is traumatic. Full stop. Family members, attorneys, mental health professionals or anyone in a relationship with an
Possible Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma
- Feeling guilt or shame about surviving a traumatic event
- Losing faith in human nature
- Believing you cannot make a difference
- Dissociation, detachment, and distancing
- Not being able to let go of the images of what you witnessed
- Pessimism and cynicism
Besides these specific signs, someone who has endured vicarious trauma will also likely present with classic symptoms of PTSD, e.g. nightmares, flashbacks, social isolation, depression, and more.
4 Tips for Coping with Vicarious Trauma
1. Practice Daily Self-Care
This is not negotiable. You must prioritize your mental and physical well-being on a day-to-day basis. Basic elements include regular sleep patterns, healthy eating choices, and daily exercise. Also, be sure to cultivate relaxation techniques and stress management tactics.
2. Finding Meaning Beyond the Trauma You Witness
Take active steps to not let the vicarious trauma dominate your thoughts and words. Seek meaning in other aspects of your life. It could be hobbies and interests. It might be your relationships and other connections.
3. Connect With Others and Deepen Those Bonds
Speaking of relationships and other connections, you will need to lean on your support system. If you don’t feel you have enough of a trusted inner circle, then seek out connections online or with in-person support groups.
4. Take Breaks From Your Devices
In many instances of vicarious trauma, your phone is not your friend. The endless notifications and clickbait articles are enough to escalate your already existing hyper-vigilance. Yes, fear of missing out (FOMO) is a strong pull. But what you need to miss out on is the non-stop fear programming that can only add to your burden.
Most of All, Ask for Help
I’ve said it before but it certainly bears repeating. You will need more than just self-help steps to treat trauma. It’s a mental condition that requires the support of an experienced therapist. Your weekly sessions can serve as a safe space to explore your experiences and your feelings. No one must live in the grip of trauma — vicarious or otherwise. So, let’s get you started in a new direction with trauma therapy. Contact me today to get started.