The Trauma Of…Vicarious Trauma

Members of the Greater Lowell Trauma Advisory Group created this summary sheet, based on a roundtable discussion held on June 4, 2013 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  The purpose of the event was to educate one another through discussion and sharing, so that we may better understand vicarious trauma and its impact on all “helpers.” Dianne Corbin, facilitator/moderator, Director of MVTS, creator and producer of documentary: “Helping Until It Hurts: A Documentary about Vicarious Trauma” led the discussion. Two providers interviewed answered questions about their experience participating in the documentary and a total of 20 professionals participated in this event. What follows is a summary of our discussion. 


The event began with introductions and discussion around the importance of agencies being mindful of offering support to their workers, focusing on self-care and education on how our work impacts us. We reviewed how difficult this topic is for most professionals, due to the stigma of Vicarious Trauma, and vulnerable feelings that are generated. Attendees discussed why this topic was important to them, what they have noticed and observed within themselves and their colleagues, how we can support one another, and questions they would like to explore during today’s roundtable discussion. Topics and questions raised included:

  • Multiple call outs by staff, which challenges ratios in preschool classrooms.
  • Vicarious trauma being a prevalent part of our work; the importance of all of us to acknowledge and talk about it regularly. Many forget to reflect and process on the trauma we absorb.
  • Importance of increasing support for staff, including debriefing and offering immediate interventions for staff following a traumatic occurrence/crisis.
  • We sometimes miss out on our own trainings, efforts to take care of ourselves, due to demands of the work. We often are too busy taking care of everyone else that we forget to take care of ourselves. Sometimes we feel guilty for wanting a healthy life of your own. How do we give to others without sacrificing ourselves completely?
  • How we are impacted physiologically and emotionally, and how we can manage the stress of this work, while also continuing to give back to the populations we serve, in healthy ways.
  • Recent events in the news trigger behaviors within the community and put more focus on our work, as media begins to reflect reality and it becomes increasingly difficult for people to differentiate between the two.
  • Systemic trauma (e.g., overburdened criminal justice system).

“Helping Until It Hurts” Documentary

Participants then watched segments from “Helping Until It Hurts” and reviewed topics related to Vicarious Trauma, as outlined below. The introduction to the documentary included reasons it was created, the reasons why providers are at risk, how often “symptoms” of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma are overlooked, providers’ fear that they will be judged negatively if they talk about their struggles, because managers will think they cannot “handle their job,” and the hope of raising awareness of this topic. By identifying and talking about symptoms and ways to cope/support one another, we may be better able to keep providers from leaving the field. 

What types of trauma are we exposed to? 

Case examples included physical abuse, multigenerational exposure to chaotic/unstable environments, assaultive behavior, substance abuse, poverty/resource deprivation, chronic sexual abuse, disabilities, emotional abuse, isolation, people in distress, child neglect, having to notify parents that their child has passed away.

How are we impacted by exposure to other people’s trauma?

Intense feelings of fear and helplessness, changes our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in, impacts relationships, makes us feel more vulnerable (like we are taking off the armor we wear at work). We avoid sharing stories with friends outside of the field because we don’t want to burden them–we recognize that people do not want to hear our “gory” stories.

What is Vicarious Trauma and who is at risk?

When we absorb too much negative energy and take on too much pain, without replenishing ourselves, we carry it with us. Vicarious Trauma can “suck the life out of you.” Work goes home with you, disrupted spirituality, distorted meaning of hope. Being empathetic puts you into the situation with your clients but also makes you more at risk. The residual of the trauma and pain builds up inside of us. People who are at risk include those with a history of trauma, those who are not aware of their triggers or that they are being triggered by clients’ stories, and those who struggle to set appropriate boundaries with clients or limits regarding their work schedule. Helpers are generally not good at self-reflection. People who lack self-awareness and don’t do anything to take care of themselves are at risk.  Helpers are constantly giving and are not as likely to ask for help for themselves. When you are identified as the one who is always helping, it is often challenging for others to recognize that you, too, may need support.

Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma

We reviewed the impact of Vicarious Trauma within the following domains: physical/behavioral, cognitive, emotional/interpersonal, and spiritual/faith. Symptoms discussed included adrenaline rush, stomach in knots, irritability, being over-protective of our own children, sleep difficulties (too much or not enough), lack of enjoyment, neck pain, feelings of uncertainty and discontentment, crying for no reason, anger, flashbacks of traumatic images or stories, worry and self-doubt.

How can we help ourselves and one another and what promotes resiliency?

Support groups, spending time with one another in personal settings to “vent,” debriefings immediately after traumatic event to process what happened and feel heard, reading, writing, intellectual stimulation, exercise, taking walks and “mind breaks,” doing check-ins with yourself, using humor, identifying and using personal supports, listening to one another, self-reflection, positive relationships, reminding ourselves that there is beauty in the world, limiting how much negativity we listen to (news/media), being mindful of the “takers” in our lives, giving small tokens of appreciation, and validation.

Why is Vicarious Trauma an important topic and what sustains us?

If we talk about it more, we can feel heard and make a difference. Those “at the top” need to gain a better understanding of how their staff are impacted by this work. Vicarious Trauma is REAL. Validation is important. It is easier to look outside ourselves than to advocate for what we need. People leave the profession, and the world cannot afford to lose its helpers! What sustains us includes giving to others, having a purpose, people grow from trauma; it is an inspiration to know that the human spirit is remarkably resilient.

Merrimack Valley Trauma Services offers a support/training group for providers, entitled “Healing Circle for Helpers,” specifically focused on preventing Vicarious Trauma. This group is open to any “helper” and is designed to promote greater self-awareness, teach skills which can be used on a daily basis in both our personal and work lives, and build a community of support for providers to help us continue to do the important work we do.