I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a looong time. I’m working on updating a presentation right now about trauma informed care and vicarious trauma for some future lawyers. It got me thinking again, how many people out there think they have anxiety, depression, burnout, or compassion fatigue when really they are experiencing vicarious trauma? My guess is it is more than we would like to admit.
If in your job or daily life you frequently hear about terrible things happening to other people, you probably feel drained or overwhelmed. That is HEAVY stuff to hear and hold. It hurts when you want to just make it all better and you can’t. You find yourself shutting down at home and work, losing motivation, and feeling like you have no control. Eventually you start feeling vulnerable, are losing trust in others, and just can’t relate to people the way you used to. You become preoccupied with the “trauma stuff” - always thinking about what others have gone through, feeling guilty that you feel bad even though it didn’t happen to you, avoiding conversations or places or people that remind you of other people’s trauma, believing the world just sucks, and being on edge. These are symptoms of vicarious trauma.
A quote I doubt I will ever drop from any version of my presentation says
vicarious trauma is unavoidable and is the natural consequence of being human, connecting to and caring about our clients as we see the effects of trauma on their lives (Saakvitne, Gamble, Pearlman, & Tabor, 2000)
Unavoidable, natural - it seems we should be worried about the people who are NOT impacted by the trauma of other people. The good news though, is there are ways to prevent and manage the severity of vicarious trauma. You can do it yourself as an individual and organizations can make supportive changes. I’m going to focus here on the individual level.
We know it is unavoidable if we hear about trauma a lot so one thing we can do is anticipate vicarious trauma and protect ourselves. This looks like making sure you have a balance in your life that works for you between work, rest, play, and socializing. It also includes finding ways to increase your own tolerance levels through things like journaling, getting emotional support from others, and going to counseling yourself. The other thing you can do is periodically measure where you are at, my preference is the Professional Quality of Life Scale because it is free and shows you where you are at in terms of compassion satisfaction, burnout, secondary traumatic stress (another phrase for vicarious trauma), and compassion satisfaction. I also really believe that using trauma-informed care can help prevent vicarious trauma but that’s a whole different blog, or course, or something :)
First and foremost you have to have some empathy for yourself. Think curiously about the life you’ve lived thus far; the people and moments who have shaped you since childhood, what drew you to the work you do, what impact does trauma have on people, what impact is it having on you? Can you understand why you might be feeling or acting in a way that isn’t who you want to be right now? Maybe you feel like all your compassion is spent on everyone else - have empathy for that too.
When it comes to self-care I have a lot of thoughts on the topic worthy of its own post but here we won’t get into that. Instead, think about what you can do to rest and relax. I’m talking about the things that help you calm and soothe your body and mind. For me this is yoga, a slow walk in nature, or sitting with a cup of tea or coffee in a quiet place. Also think about what you can do for enjoyment. It doesn’t have to be something calm or relaxing, the only requirement is that you actually feel good while you are doing it. This is where I like to go on a hike, long bike ride, or dance. Lastly, you want to think about what re-energizes you. Maybe it is some of those things in your list already but you might find other things lift your spirits and give you energy. For me, this is where I need music - a concert, voice lessons, karaoke, anything with energizing music. What does self-care need to include to work for you?
I know what you are thinking - sweet, I can just pretend it doesn’t exist and it will be fine. Sorry, but nope. When I say escape I don’t mean total avoidance, I mean sometimes we just need a break from it all. We might need to physically or mentally escape after hearing about something really awful. That’s a good time to get out for your lunch break or coffee if you can. The only requirement is you escape to something that is NOT work or trauma related.
A lot of this comes at the organizational level but there are still some things you can do as an individual. If you are able, try to balance your trauma and non-trauma work. You might be able to take other types of cases or spend time teaching others. Find other professional activities where you can be involved; maybe you can get the ball rolling on making your organization more trauma informed. Get involved in advocacy at the level you are comfortable with. Find what is possible and master the possible. I try to master trauma-informed care practices at an individual level; get really really good at what you can do. Get supervision or consultation from peers. Try to make a work routine to the extent possible to make your day more predictable and feel like you have some control. Set some reasonable boundaries on what work comes home (if any) and how much you work.
A routine at home can be helpful too; it does not have to be elaborate or rigid, just enough to let you feel like you have a handle on things. If you live with someone create rituals at home - maybe you eat dinner together every Friday or have a regular game night. Some sort of ritual that helps create connection is best. Find and get social support from friends, family, and partners. Volunteering can be helpful too if it fits it your life balance. Other personal strategies include limiting your media exposure and practicing mindfulness.
Transformation and Meaning
If you are hearing about trauma a lot at some point you probably decided that helping people is important to you. It is easy to lose hope and lose your “why” when vicarious trauma hits. It is vital to find or re-discover the meaning in what you do and why you are doing it. We can find meaning and hope by creating it ourselves, connecting with others, helping in building community, and being mindful of the positives. We can look within ourselves and others to find meaning. Consider the importance of your work, the people you care about, and the people who care about you. If you are a spiritual or religious person reconnect with that aspect of yourself.
There are very positive aspects of working with trauma too. We can feel good and fulfilled knowing the work we do changes lives. We increase our ability to reframe negative experiences. We grow through the people we work with hearing stories of courage and resilience. We find hope for the future. We can even develop vicarious resilience as we recover from vicarious trauma.
Would you like to hear more about how I might be able to help you with vicarious trauma? Set up a call so we can chat soon!