The Dangers of Vicarious Trauma for Helpers
Posted on February 3, 2017
My recent review of self-care literature and subsequent re-examination of my thinking about the dangers of our work has been a powerful reminder of the intensity associated with our field. We love the people we serve; their well-being is an incredibly important part of our lives. When people we love and care about deeply are in pain, we are also in pain.
Vicarious trauma, a trauma experienced by a helper when a client we care about is going through a traumatic experience, is an aspect of our work that impacts us all in some way. We can’t help but feel another’s pain, especially as empathetic listening is a critical part of our success. The transfer of trauma is a real psychological phenomenon that puts us all at some risk.
Vicarious trauma is an intense form of empathetic intensity. Our clients’ trauma isn’t something that happened in the past and is now over. Too often, trauma plays out over days, months, and even years. We sit with clients as they tell of their current struggles around issues of domestic violence, losing children to social services, or becoming homeless.
Trauma plays out while the client is in our care, and sometimes there is little we can do to fix the situation or make the pain go away. Over the years, so many clients have left my office, and I’ve wondered:
Will they follow through on their suicidal thoughts?
Will they overdose and die?
Will the domestic violence situation become life-threatening?
Will they seriously harm someone?
Most people might have these thoughts about people they care about once or twice in their lives. We often have them on a weekly, if not daily, basis. We can quickly experience vicarious trauma when these experiences overwhelm the capacity of our cup to handle stress.
Vicarious trauma is powerful because it usually includes the three critical factors that increase our experience of stress: duration, uncertainty, and importance. Even if the trauma was specific to a time and place, the pain and hurt resulting from the trauma could continue over an extended duration of time. Court cases, custody battles, homelessness, and other pain arising from the trauma play out and continue to develop over time.
We are able to be present with the client’s pain as they struggle to deal with the ongoing traumatic experience. When we experience a client’s trauma in real time, there are often high levels of uncertainty. We are often powerless to halt the trauma fully. All we can do is listen and be supportive. While this is a tremendous gift, we take on the massive amounts of stress and trauma overflowing from the client’s cup, and can feel powerless in this position.
Finally, our clients and their lives are incredibly important to us. We care about them as people, we advocate for them in the community, we see the good in them that others may not be able to see. To see them hurt hurts us.
Vicarious trauma is something we all need to talk more about in our organizations. It is not something that just impacts weak people, or those who are new to the field. In some way, it impacts all of us. My question this week is, how do you handle the trauma you are exposed to on a regular basis? Please use the comment section and let’s learn from each other. Take care of yourselves!