NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, September 24, 2023

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, involves indirect exposure to trauma through listening to first-hand accounts from people who experienced traumatic events directly.  

Vicarious Trauma is Also Known as Secondary Trauma

Exposure to accounts of trauma that lead to vicarious trauma can involve trauma that is a one-time event, like shock trauma

Examples of shock trauma include getting robbed, feeling helpless and overwhelmed during a natural disaster, a car accident and so on.

Exposure to accounts of trauma can also occur due to accounts of ongoing trauma like complex trauma, which involves trauma experienced over time. 

Examples of complex trauma include childhood trauma involving abuse or neglect that occurred over a period of time.

In this article, I'll use the terms vicarious trauma and secondary trauma interchangeably.

Who is at Risk For Vicarious Trauma?
People in the helping professions, including psychotherapists, social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses, lawyers and other related professions are at risk for vicarious trauma.

In addition, anyone who has a close relationship with someone who experienced trauma, including a spouse, family member or close friend, can experience vicarious trauma.

When people in the helping professions or significant others are repeatedly exposed to accounts of trauma, they run the risk of experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue (see my article: Helping the Helpers to Overcome Compassion Fatigue).  

Many therapists and helping professionals experienced secondary trauma after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack in 2001.  Professionals, who worked with individuals and groups for many months helping them through their shock and grief, experienced secondary trauma. Many of them sought their own therapy and professional support groups to process their symptoms because they were going through the crisis at the same time as their clients.

Similarly, during the worst stage of COVID, therapists and other helping professionals experienced secondary trauma helping clients to process their fear, anxiety and dread at the same time that these mental health professionals were trying to cope with their own emotions.  To help these professionals, many professional organizations offered emotional support.

What Are the Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma?
Everyone's experience of vicarious trauma is different.  

Vicarious trauma can be especially difficult for people who have their own history of psychological trauma because it can trigger memories of personal traumatic experiences.

Some common symptoms of vicarious trauma include (but are not limited to):
  • Grief,
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Irritability 
  • A sense of unease/feeling unsafe
  • Distraction
  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetitie
  • Negativity
  • Cynicism
  • Despair
  • Depression
  • Loss of hope
  • Increase in alcohol use or other substances
  • Social isolation/avoidance of people
  • Avoidance of tasks
  • Difficulty separating work life from personal life (including an inability to stop thinking about clients' or other people's trauma)
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, rashes, heartburn and other physical issues
How Can Self Care Help to Reduce the Risk of Vicarious Trauma?
Self care practices to reduce the risk of vicarious trauma include:
  • Eating nutritious meals
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising, walking or taking yoga classes at an appropriate level
  • Taking time off
  • Listening to music
  • Spending time with loved ones who are emotionally supportive
  • Spending time enjoying hobbies
  • Other forms of relaxation 
How Can Professional Training and Supervision Help Reduce the Risk of Vicarious Trauma For Helping Professionals?
Therapists and other helping professionals who deal with psychological trauma need to develop the necessary clinical skills to treat traumatized individuals. If they don't have this training and supervision, they are working outside the scope of their expertise.

They also need to develop their own personal coping skills to reduce the risk of vicarious trauma.

Therapists who treat trauma also need individual supervision, especially if they're new to trauma treatment or they have a challenging case.

Group supervision is also helpful to provide clinical feedback as well as to get collegial support.

What Are the Benefits of Trauma Therapy For People Experiencing Vicarious Trauma?
Trauma therapy is crucial for anyone who experiencing vicarious trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

The Benefits of Trauma Therapy

Trauma therapy includes experiential therapies that were specifically developed to help people to overcome trauma (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

Experiential trauma therapy includes the following modalities:
  • EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
  • AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy)
Getting Help in Trauma Therapy
Rather than struggling on your own with secondary trauma, you could benefit from seeking help from a skilled trauma therapist.

Trauma therapy can help you to overcome secondary trauma so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

As a trauma therapist, I have helped many clients to overcome trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.