What is Vicarious Trauma?

Research shows that about 20% of professional helpers are greatly impacted by taking on negative energy from their clients or patients. The ones most affected tend to be more sensitive people. The vast majority are not aware of what’s happening to them because the process is very gradual. It starts with their losing enthusiasm for their work and becoming more tired over time. This has serious repercussions for work performance and relationships at home as well. This applies to psychologists, child welfare workers, nurses, physicians, counselors, healers, teachers, dentists, firemen, lawyers, and anyone who works with people under a great deal of stress.


Vicarious trauma happens when we accumulate and carry the stories of trauma—including images, sounds, resonant details—we have heard, which then come to inform our worldview.


If you think of trauma as information, vicarious trauma is information overload. There is a limit to what we are able to take in and process. The stories of trauma and suffering start to fill us up and can become part of us. Vicarious trauma is a human response to the experience of coming face-to-face with the reality of trauma and the difficulties of the human experience. It can slowly shift our outlook and deny us the perspective of a world that exists beyond the traumatic experience.


You may also hear some of these experiences and effects referred to in different terms, like compassion fatigue, secondary trauma or burnout. While each of these terms describe slightly different experiences, the common thread in all of them is that we experience harm to ourselves—often in the hopes of helping others—beyond what we can normally be expected to handle.  When we combine this with the fact each of us comes to this work with our own stressors and often our own trauma histories, it's clear why our bodies and minds fill up to the brink of what they can handle.


As we become aware of how contact with trauma and suffering manifests—and of the various strategies for managing those manifestations—it becomes necessary for us to craft a path to sustainability that works for us as individuals. This path is different for everyone and will only be effective if it is informed by the awareness of our individual struggles and opportunities for self-care and resilience. Each of us must create and commit to travel our own path to sustainability.


We can find our direction by looking inside. We all have a place inside us where we keep our deepest knowledge—our truth. That place knows us and it has a voice. It knows what we need to heal, to be happy, to accept and give love, and to feel at home on this planet and in our world. This place knows what is best for us, how to best find the nurturing and care we all need.


Its voice can sometimes be obscured by depression, anxiety or feelings of guilt and obligation. It may be drowned out by other voices, the voices of “should” and “shouldn't” and other people’s needs. What other people need—what the world needs—is people who honor and respect and nurture themselves.


One big way we can do this is by honoring a regular practice of self-care.