Understanding Vicarious Trauma

By Callie Nisbet RN-BSN, Freelance Nurse Writer, Certified Mental Health Advocate AACC

What is Vicarious Trauma?

This article is meant to give understanding to those who work and support individuals that have been through a complex traumatic, and often life changing event. Vicarious Trauma, also known as VT, by definition, is the emotional and psychological trauma and distress that is experienced by those individuals who are secondarily exposed to trauma through the experiences of others. (ChatGPT, personal communication, April 2024) Typically, this is credited to having a close or working relationship with that individual who experienced the traumatic event. The victim of the traumatic event may be a family member, friend, patient, or client. The empathy you experience and the desire to help them in their distress can cause your own vicarious trauma. VT is often prominent within professions such as health care. This would include social workers, counselors, therapists, first-responders, nurses and doctors, who work one-on-one with individuals that are trauma survivors or may be experiencing trauma. Throughout this article, we will refer to healthcare professionals, therapists, family members, friends, etc as “confidant(s).”

Understanding Vicarious Trauma is important in order to continue to have a healthy mindset when faced with such atrocities. It is important, if you are one who works with traumatized individuals, that you understand the dynamics of VT. It can cause a change in your worldview that can be either positive or negative. There are actually three kinds of responses to the VT spectrum, according to the Office of Justice:

Negative Response

Negative response may be very tricky and worth being re-evaluated as it can cause a downward spiral to the victim/s trauma. This response can cause secondary trauma stress (STS), Compassion Fatigue (CF), and critical incident stress (CIS). These negative effects on the confidant can open the door to illness and trauma which at times, becomes chronic. It can be the precursor to unexplained pain, chronic fatigue, insomnia, poor eating habits that can lead to either excessive weight loss or gain, autoimmune diseases, and susceptibility to infection, as well as a host of other symptoms.

Neutral Response

Those individuals that take a neutral stance on the event presented to them can manage the impact effectively. They neither have negative emotional, psychological, or physical responses, but they help the individual empathically without taking the load upon themselves. Therapeutic support systems and training can influence this response although it can also be a part of the person’s general personality make-up as well. These individuals often have their own vicarious resilience which strengthens their own mental and emotional peace of mind.

Positive Response

These specific individuals display what is known as vicarious resilience which is a positive transformation experienced by individuals who are exposed to the resilience and strength of others (ChatGPT personal communication, April 2024). These confidants use the trauma to motivate themselves to compassionate satisfaction. In other words, they are highly driven, highly motivated, and positively energetic people. Positive response individuals want to do as much as they can to help their traumatized friend, family, or client and in turn, make as big of an impact as they can on society. They take what has happened to a group of individuals and run with it to help aid and support others who have been through a similar situation. Often times, the trauma may have happened to this individual as well at one time in their life. If the confidant has been able to process their own healing, they now have the energy it takes to do something positive in response.

Who Is Affected The Most By VT?

Healthcare workers are at a high risk of possibly having a negative impact related to trauma exposure causing VT. According to an article in PubMed, a study was done which did in fact conclude that SANE nurses (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) had significantly higher levels of VT in comparison to regular women’s health nurses. The SANE nurses especially had a much higher degree of VT if they had experienced a personal trauma themselves that they could relate to which triggered memories of their own, causing their empathy to be more raw.

It is evident that whether an individual has or has not experienced their own trauma, the correlated levels of cognitive disruption can cause the confidant to feel like they have experienced the trauma themselves. This is also the difference between sympathy, “I care about you,” and empathy, “I’m hurting with you.” Healthcare workers and others working in ministry, counseling, therapy, and house parents to traumatized individuals living in group homes or safe houses need to be aware of this phenomenon when choosing to pursue this specialty. It can in fact cause compassion fatigue, PTSD, and secondary traumatic stress in those individuals.

How Can You Cope With VT?

All in all, support systems need to be available and set in place for health care workers, family members as well as friends that are experiencing Vicarious Trauma. Within a community of workers, it would be beneficial to have informal group meetings or debriefing sessions to let down and talk about what they are experiencing. Be mindful of whether it is permissible to mention names keeping certain things confidential. Family members and friends who are walking alongside the traumatized individuals may need their own counseling, support groups or trusted emotionally stable friends that support and talk and walk them through the questions in their minds. Talking it out is a form of therapy and restructures the part of our brain that processes fear, emotions and memory. Reading and further study from books or reliable internet articles and podcasts can also help individuals glean knowledge and wisdom in order to steer the VT in the right direction. VT aimed in the right direction can change the world as is evident here at Bob’s House of Hope and Ranch Hand Rescue. Changing lives and opening the door to Post-Traumatic Growth will allow those that have gone through an extensive trauma and those choosing to support them to have a positive mental mindset and fulfilled life ahead of them.