Seeing and experiencing disasters and traumatic events with one’s own eyes can be a life-altering experience. Images of disaster and loss can stick with a person, creating intrusive thoughts and causing a person to seek refuge from their mental state. The effects of this trauma can infiltrate every aspect of a person’s life, compromising one’s mental and emotional health. It can also carry several social or professional hardships and may even develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the effects of traumatic experiences can have an impact on people who may not have seen or experienced the disastrous event firsthand. This is called vicarious trauma, and having a vicarious trauma definition, knowing the signs of vicarious trauma, and how to deal with vicarious trauma in oneself and loved ones can all help in addressing the effects of disastrous events in many peoples’ lives.
How To Define Vicarious Trauma
Vicarious trauma is experiencing the effects of traumatic events through a secondary source. News outlets covering shootings, natural disasters, or wars can all include graphic, disturbing imagery that can expose a person to the horrors of a traumatic situation through a second-hand lens.
Vicarious trauma can set in after repeated exposure to these sources, and constant exposure to these difficult stories or images can have a very intense effect on an individual. Viewing crime scene photographs or listening to detailed recounts of traumatic events can all cause a person to begin to alter their worldview.
Vicarious trauma can happen to anyone, but first responders and counselors themselves have an increased risk of experiencing these effects due to their proximity to those who have suffered from traumatic events. Over time, the constant exposure to trauma can prompt an individual to see the world itself through a negative lens, bringing the feelings of exhaustion, sadness, depression, anxiety, and even an overall lack of hope. Vicarious trauma is often equated to compassion fatigue, but there is a key difference between the two. Compassion fatigue refers to the inherent physical and emotional exhaustion of helping others, while vicarious trauma can manifest as a profound shift in a person’s worldview as a whole, creating a more bleak outlook on the world at large.
Vicarious Trauma Symptoms
Vicarious trauma can present itself in several different ways. Each person may experience it differently or have their definition of vicarious trauma and what it means to them based on their unique perspective. However, there are signs to help you identify vicarious trauma in yourself or loved ones. Those who are first responders or counselors may benefit from a vicarious trauma assessment themselves, as a way to keep a healthy outlook and level of self-care while dealing with the stresses of their occupation.
Vicarious trauma can make it difficult to manage one’s own emotions, so feelings of anger, irritation, or sadness expressed towards the outside world may become more prevalent. These feelings can be a personal response to firsthand accounts of others in their care, or can even feel directionless. Pessimism and cynicism may become apparent in a person’s language, and those experiencing vicarious trauma may even become unfocused, isolated, or shut themselves off from others around them in an attempt to protect themselves from their now deeply uncomfortable worldview. Fatigue, exhaustion, and difficulty sleeping can all become problematic, and a person may even turn to destructive coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol to further detach themselves from the constant exposure to traumatic or tragic stories.
For first responders and trauma or mental health counselors, these symptoms can make it very difficult to safely do their work. Having difficulty coping with the constant exposure to trauma while continuing to be put in new traumatic situations can complicate the ability to develop some sort of vicarious trauma self-care, toolkit, or treatment strategy. Providing vicarious trauma training to those in occupational fields prone to traumatic events or exposure to accounts of trauma can help each person best prepare for the possibility. However, it is still important to reinforce and encourage the idea of reaching out to professionals for help, if needed.
How To Deal With Vicarious Trauma
Dealing with vicarious trauma can be exceptionally difficult, as it is the result of a long period of repeated exposure to troublesome and negative recounts of life-altering experiences. However, vicarious trauma treatment is possible and helping others overcome the effects of their vicarious trauma can begin to shift one’s worldview back into a less cynical, or even optimistic, light. Helping a person tend to their basics each day, such as maintaining appointments, keeping a healthy diet, and encouraging a consistent sleep schedule can help a person regain much of the physical and emotional energy needed after a long period of exhaustion and fatigue. Promoting self-care, or even demonstrating the practice yourself for a person suffering from vicarious trauma can scaffold the practice for implementation in others. Inviting the person along to one’s self-care or therapeutic outlets can help them further direct their negative energy in a more positive direction, rather than leaving it to swell or otherwise move towards destructive coping mechanisms.
Exploring self-care outlets that challenge one’s worldview may be especially impactful, such as the use of media therapy or cinema therapy, which can showcase the possibility of happy endings even amidst hardship. Although these may be dismissed as fiction at first, they can ultimately help by giving the person an emotional break while reintroducing the idea of optimism and happy endings into daily life. Overcoming vicarious trauma can take a long time, as it often has spent a long time eroding one’s worldview and emotional state. Learning to help someone experiencing vicarious trauma may mean forgiving emotional outbursts and cynicism that may be present, as well as working out flexible schedules to compromise a person’s difficult emotional state. However, healing is possible, and staying alongside a person through their trauma can be the motivation and sign itself that positivity and recovery are achievable goals.