I've been asked recently about what vicarious trauma is. Whilst I'm not overly surprised to be asked, it does highlight that those working with trauma may not be aware of an important aspect of the impact of the work on the 'helper'.
I use the term 'helper' as a catch all phrase for those engaging with, at depth, with empathy, and helping others that have been through trauma. So, if this is you, you might want to read on....
What is vicarious trauma?
Vicarious trauma is a natural response in a 'helper' to the traumatic material presented by a client. It is the culmination of regularly engaging with traumatic material, a drip effect of regularly bearing witness to other's trauma. Added to the helper’s commitment/responsibility to do this work. It tends to lead to a lasting effect on the helper, in all aspects of their wellbeing. It can mean a wide variety of unwanted symptoms, such as: loss of hope or meaning, experiencing trauma-based imagery, having physical symptoms of stress/trauma, having nightmares, feeling socially isolated, avoidance of working with clients that have trauma, being hyper vigilant, developing a negative/pessimistic view of the world, distancing from spiritual beliefs.
For me, this means: I have a highly exaggerated startle response to sudden loud noises and I'm also hypervigilant about scanning for harm, in places where I should be relaxing, on a night out for example. These responses emerged when I worked within the criminal justice system with perpetrators of violence, they have stayed with me, alongside other symptoms.
It is worth remembering that having experiences of vicarious trauma does not mean that you are bad at your job, unprofessional, or are unable to do your job. There can be shame and guilt for the helper in admitting that they are affected by the work, remember, you are only human! But, you may need some help in recognising and managing vicarious trauma, which is where supervision comes in.
Who does it affect?
Everyone who works with trauma. Some think there is a greater chance of becoming vicariously traumatised if you have a personal history of trauma. Given that many who are drawn to helping others may have a personal connection with areas in which they help, this may well be worth thinking about. With the pandemic and the ongoing issues of conflict and war in the world, I predict that many of those that have helped others through these challenging times will be feeling the effects of the work. Please do remember that you are not alone, seek support when and if you can.
But it's not all bad, there is also the idea of vicarious growth - this means that working with trauma can help to hone your skills, you can gain confidence in the work you are doing and you can learn a lot about yourself and your ability to work with traumatic material.
How can supervision help?
Supervision can help you process your response to the trauma you are hearing. It can help you sift through the helpful and unhelpful impact of the effects of working with trauma. Supervision can help you recognise the symptoms you have and how these impact on you. Having a supervisor’s gaze on your wellbeing and resilience can help identify the impact that you are unable to see, because of your work. Supervision has helped me immensely with processing the impact of the work.
My Master's research looked at new therapists and the impact of working with victims of domestic abuse, all of the participants had experienced symptoms of vicarious trauma and all had vicariously grown as therapist because of working with trauma. Interestingly, all said that supervision was what helped them manage the symptoms and recognise growth.
For those who help others and want to learn more about their resilience and working with trauma, I'm holding an event on 19th May in collaboration with Leicester Vaughan College, at the adult education centre in Leicester. For more details click here: https://vaughan.coop/course/resilience-and-trauma/
"the expectation that we can be immersed in the suffering and loss daily - and not be touched by it - is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. This sort of denial is no small matter" Remen (1996,p.50) Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that heal. New York: Penguin