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!

7 responses to “The Dangers of Vicarious Trauma for Helpers”

  1. Matt,

    I am so greatful for your blog and the services you provide. This subject of Self Care you have been sharing has been helpful and a nice time of reflection and a great conversation piece for my staff and I. to answer your question how do you handle the trauma you are exposed to on a regular basis, I tap into my spirituality to find relief. I turn the pain and the inflictions that I share with my clients into prayers for them and their situations. In addition, I have debriefing moments with staff. This is a place to allow us to process together some of the stress and address it sharing ideas to help us as staff cope and have the ability to maintain barriers within ourselves so that we are not carrying the weight of these burdens into our personal lives but also addressing matters in a realistic and ethical way with our clients. Thank you again for your blog, it has been both informative and an encouragement.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Wow…thanks so much for the kind words my friend! I love the fact that you see your spirituality as a self-care skill. So many of us fulfill a spiritual calling in our work. Using our connection to spirit to keep ourselves healthy and grounded is a powerful way to stay connected to our passion. Matt

  2. sara carrillo says:

    I work a lot with immigrant/refugee families so the past few months and particularly the last two weeks have been fraught. The worst part for me is feeling helpless to do anything in the here and now, except write letters that I’m pretty sure no one reads. My ‘escape’, as has been all my life, is to bury myself in a book for a couple of hours and live someone else’s life. As my real life has become more complicated and sometimes more painful, my reading has taken a turn for lighthearted fantasy! I don’t want to read a novel about angst and anger, I want to read a romance or a funny mystery, lol….

    Whether it’s in reading, exercise, or spiritualiy, I think we all need a release valve these days for the pressure cooker that is life.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      I love the book escape. I went to arctic expeditions (most of which ended in amazing human feats combined with tragedy and death. Not sure why I turned this direction! Keep up the amazing work. I know you are the light at the end of a pretty scary tunnel for many of your clients. Knowing you are keeping that candle lit makes me feel a little better. Finally, keep writing letters. I’ve been hearing a ton of news that they are getting through!! Matt

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Occasionally, I hear folks complain about the news and proudly tell how they now ignore it because it’s so negative. I prefer to follow it regularly; for one must see the dangers coming to better meet them. The “bad stuff” around us is creeping toward us, may hit us at any time; we should be emotionally ready, with a clear mind. A good metaphor is the training of police officers regarding an oncoming threat: they are taught to move toward the danger! If a perpetrator approaches, the best reaction is to move in his, or her, direction, to respond. An attitudinal reaction to emotional pain may be as helpful. Look life’s hardships in the face and fight. Remember those words from the Revolutionary War that some of us learned in school: “I have not yet begun to fight!” I’ve found that helpful in reading and hearing about the negative behavior of men and women in society and the world.

  4. Matt Bennett says:

    Move towards it! I might only add…with your army!

  5. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Indeed; it is better to act and react wisely. The attitude brings us to prepartion for the response. A police officer is prepared to respond in that way–often with a firearm, and with back-up somewhere, I suppose.

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