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Trauma plays an essential role in the lives of many. While many of us continue to live with our own traumatic experiences, we are also prone to get affected by others’ painful memories. This happens when we expose ourselves to other people’s trauma in our professional and personal lives. In cases where we engage with such people carrying trauma and grief, it sometimes becomes our own without us even realising it. This indirect trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, is harsher and more uncomfortable than it sounds, with far-reaching effects.

Suppose you or someone around you has been constantly in touch with people carrying traumatic memories. In that case, this article will help you explore vicarious trauma meaning, how it develops, and what can be done to mitigate it.

According to the British Medical Association, vicarious trauma refers to a change process resulting from frequently engaging with trauma survivors. In simpler words, the term describes the negative changes that a person experiences who are empathetically involved with people who have experienced a traumatic event in the past. Counsellors, therapists, law enforcement officers, emergency crews, judges, lawyers, and physicians are all at high risk of vicarious trauma due to their frequent professional engagement with trauma survivors. It can also be experienced by family members and friends who provide support or empathise with a trauma victim.

Mentioned below are some common vicarious trauma symptoms:

  • Feelings of sadness, anxiety, or grief
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Altered sleeping habits
  • An Increased link between work and personal life to support a trauma survivor
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, rashes, ulcers, and heartburn
  • Loss of hope
  • Difficulty in concentrating or recalling
  • A tendency towards using alcohol or drugs
  • Mood irregularities
  • A failure of purpose in life
  • Pervasive negative feelings about someone’s trauma
  • Constantly finding ways to stay busy, for example, overworking
  • Thinking about a trauma survivor all the time

Experiencing vicarious trauma in a professional setting from exposure to a trauma survivor client can lead to the following two additional symptoms:

Compassion Fatigue

As a manifestation of vicarious trauma, this symptom is characterised by an inability to empathise with others due to being occupied with the experience of a particular trauma survivor all the time.

Burnout

As vicarious trauma slowly creeps into a professional’s life, they may find it challenging to get their job done, constantly feel under pressure, and make mistakes. In medical terms, such a condition is known as burnout which can easily affect people’s performance at work and their responsibilities related to personal life.

As per the constructivist self-development theory, vicarious trauma occurs due to an interaction between an individual and their environment. What this means is that factors like their history of trauma exposure, support system, and coping mechanisms liaise with their current condition, such as work environment and nature of work, to produce vicarious trauma symptoms. Due to a high number of factors associated with this type of trauma, there can be multiple reasons why someone develops it.

Some experts believe it develops when an individual’s sense of safety is broken as they listen to other people’s traumas. Others suggest that anything that makes it difficult for a person to fulfil their role of assisting a trauma survivor is likely to cause vicarious trauma. The social stigma related to mental health treatment among clinicians is also said to share a connection with the development of vicarious trauma in some people. This stigma makes it difficult for people to engage in self-care, and as a result, such people become more vulnerable to vicarious trauma. Evidence also suggests that this type of trauma is more prevalent in professionals who rely on self-sacrificing coping methods to deal with trauma survivors.

Learning to prevent vicarious trauma is worth the effort if you work in a setting with a high number of trauma survivors. With the simple techniques mentioned below, you can ensure that your mental health remains sound and wholesome as you continue to extend your support and services to those who require it.

Develop coping strategies

You can quickly reduce the risk of acquiring vicarious trauma by balancing your work and relaxation. The ideal balance between the two lives should include socialising with family and friends, indulging in physical activities, and picking up creative interests. Regular participation in these activities can help you maintain a feeling of self while building a solid network of people you can rely on. This support system can not only help mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma if you have already acquired it but can also help you prevent it.

Practice spirituality

Vicarious trauma can easily make you lose the meaning of life and affect how you perceive yourself, your loved ones, and the rest of the work. Without meaning, you are at a high risk of developing cynicism, hopelessness, outrage, numbness, and constant confusion and despair. With time, these feelings become constant and affect your ability to function normally in your personal and professional lives. In such circumstances, it is critical to reconnecting with your personal and professional values, beliefs, and ethics; the best way to establish it is by practising spirituality. Connecting with a spiritual therapist can help you bring back meaning to your life and give you the motivation to pick up right where you left.

Take a leave

One of the biggest reasons professionals end up suffering from vicarious trauma is the lack of regular breaks. There can be many reasons one does not take a break from their professions, such as understaffing, financial issues, or a desire to help others. Regardless, working non-stop can easily make you forget the importance of taking a break which only exacerbates the symptoms of vicarious trauma. Hence, make sure to space out your work with regular breaks to give your body and mind some time to recover.

Take help from humour

A sense of humour can be the best tool to resist the adverse effects of being constantly exposed to trauma stories. Since humour is a subjective term, there is no suggestion on how to maintain it. For some people, it can be as simple as watching a comedy show, while for others, it means spending time with someone who makes them laugh.

Focus on your health

The simple everyday activities that enhance and support personal well-being can significantly benefit overall health. So make sure you make enough time to focus on including them in your daily life for better physical and emotional energy. Cook a wholesome meal for yourself on the weekend, plan a getaway with your partner, or simply spend some alone time in nature.

The first step in treating vicarious trauma involves stepping back and putting yourself out of the shoes of a trauma victim. You must:

  • Keep a hold of yourself by ensuring that you eat well, get adequate sleep, and exercise regularly.
  • Be aware and conscious of the moment. For this purpose, invest time in doing things that make you happy, attend a mindfulness class, or take a bicycle ride in the neighbourhood.
  • Enable yourself to connect with others. Vicarious trauma is likely to isolate you from others, but you must resist it by going out and connecting with your loved ones for mental nourishment.

In addition to the self-care tips mentioned above, do not be afraid to seek professional treatment if things get out of hand. A therapist can help you get over your secondhand trauma symptoms through an individualised care plan which may include:

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy with a special emphasis on trauma resolution. Through a well-structured therapeutic plan, it targets skewed thought patterns and negative behaviours and responses of a person towards a certain situation. Using this therapy, a professional can help you mitigate most of the symptoms related to vicarious trauma.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

EMDR is a popular and equally effective treatment for all trauma-related conditions, including PTSD. Experts have used this powerful method to reduce negative memories, emotions, and physiological sensations linked to an individual’s personal experiences. The mechanism of action of EMDR involved desensitising a person to a traumatic incident through a series of exercises, including guided eye movements.

Whatever treatment plan you choose for vicarious trauma, remember that you are not alone in this. Everyone tends to get affected by a present situation to varying degrees. If you are unable to handle these effects on your own, reaching out to a therapist specialising in trauma treatment can be highly beneficial.

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