The truth of VT- no it is not burn out, no it is not countertransference, no it is not your lack of skill. These are different things.
Vicarious trauma (VT) is the negative transformation in a person that can result, over time, from empathic engagement with trauma survivors and their traumatic material, combined with a commitment or responsibility to help them.
Often, but not always the greater the exposure to traumatic material, the greater the risk of vicarious trauma. The exposure does not have to be directly with someone who is revealing or talking about their trauma. The exposure can also be to reading material that contains traumatic material, or disturbing details (for example, crime briefs, reports, etc).
Susceptible workers are usually in the helping professions such as health, mental health, crises centres, housing, law enforcement, legal, emergency services and family services and many more. There is no doubt that hearing and thinking about the stories one hears can continue well after the client has left the therapeutic interaction.
Vicarious trauma is not a sign of weakness. It is the cost of working with people who have experienced trauma and abuse – of bearing witness and of empathic engagement with those affected.
It is important to differentiate vicarious trauma from compassion fatigue and burnout, with which it is often confused, and yet commonly co-exists.
While the phenomenon of vicarioustrauma is widely acknowledged, it can be challenging to recognise and deal with it. Its dynamics and `ripple effects’ are complex, pervasive and damaging.
VT recognises that working with trauma survivors greatly affects the helper and that we must address the effects in order to protect both helper and clients. VT is a natural consequence of being human, connecting to and caring about our clients as we see the effects of trauma on their lives.
The single most important factor in the success or failure of trauma work relates to the attention paid to the experience and the needs of the helper. We cannot meet the needs of our clients when we are overriding our own. There is a lot of sense when you are told during safety instructions on a plane to “put your oxygen mask on before assisting others”. Or, the old saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup”.
VT impacts on so many areas of psychological need including: safety, trust, esteem, intimacy ad control.
Inevitably trauma therapists will develop an increased awareness of the reality and occurrence of traumatic events, and this makes therapists more aware of their vulnerability. Safety and security are threatened when therapists become aware of the frequency of traumas, often leading to feelings of loss of control and helplessness.
VT can affect how therapists relate to their families, friends, and partners. Furthermore, the therapist may experience changes in esteem for themselves and for others.
Signs and symptoms of VT include but are not limited to:
- Changes in your core beliefs about yourself, others and the world
- Feling emotionally numb or bereft
- Sense of cynicism or pessimism
- Social withdrawal, avoiding others / occasions
- Work-related dreams/nightmares
- Feelings of despair and hopelessness
- Loss of sense of spirituality
- Loss of hope in humanity / negative view of the world
- Resentment about people taking your time or like you do ‘too much’
- Easily irritated and perhaps acting out of irritability (n.b: not to be confused with domestic violence)
- Loss of enjoyment of sexual activity
- No time or energy for yourself
- Feeling that you can’t discuss work with family or friends
- Finding that you talk about work all the time (can’t escape)
- Sense of disconnection from your loved ones
- Increased sense of danger (reduced sense of safety)
- Increased fear for safety of children or loved ones
- Increased illness or fatigue
- Increased absenteeism
- Greater problems with boundaries
- Difficulties making decisions
- Reduced productivity
- Reduced motivation for your work
- Reduced sense of time and energy for clients
- Loss of sense of control over your work and your life
- Lowered self esteem, lowered sense of competence in your work
- Difficulties trusting others
- Lessened interest in spending time alone
- Less time spent reflecting on your experiences
- Using maladaptive coping strategies (e.g: alcohol, other substances, negative diversions like gambling)
IF you recognise any signs of VT there are ways to help. At Compass Psychology Services we work closely with the client on evidence based areas associated with surviving and managing VT. Assessment inventories associated wit VT may also be used if necessary.
Furthermore, if you are seeking work in an environment that exposes you to trauma/trauma material, anticipateworking in such an environment, consider a proactive strike to gain information, education and strategies to mitigate the risk and impact of VT.
If you are already working in a helping profession and (and/or any profession that exposes you to trauma or trauma material) but again, may not perceive any of the above or other impacts of VT, education and proactive intervention is never wasted. You will further thrive in your environment and also be in a position to recognise and assist others who may be experiencing VT but unsure what to do, or where to go, or think they are ‘not coping’- which is untrue! We can work together to debunk the misunderstandings of VT.
Remember, anyone working with people affected by trauma or with traumatic material, or who want to do this work, can benefit for understanding more about Vicarious trauma, how to recognise the risks early and manage them.
Compass Psychology Servicesdelivers a range of professional services to help recognise and assist helping professionals,
You can do one or a combination of these treatment modalities.
- individual (one on one) sessions- And, yes you can gain a Mental Health Care Plan from your General Practitioner.
- Group-based sessions for work teams- upon request. The topic is serious but we make these experiences unique, enjoyable and insightful.
- Office on site training to help agencies (across many sectors) and all staff within recognise and mitimage the risks of VT
- Supervision to support providers / teams working in the trauma space and how themselves to guide staff in strategies to mitigate vicarious trauma risk.