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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
You know that certain physical illnesses — like a cold or strep throat — are contagious. But did you know that trauma can also be contagious? Well, kind of.
It is believed by some that people who work closely with others who are experiencing or have experienced trauma may “absorb” some of it themselves. There’s even a name for it — vicarious trauma.
Keep reading to find out who is most at risk for experiencing vicarious trauma, what the symptoms are and how to treat it.
Vicarious trauma is a concept that first gained popularity in the 1980s and was originally called the cost of caring. It is sometimes also called compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, secondary trauma or secondary victimization.
So, what exactly is it? It’s the theory that people who work in fields where they interact with people who have been victimized or suffer from physical or psychological trauma may experience second-hand trauma themselves. Professions thought to be especially at risk include therapists, law enforcement, emergency medical responders and people who work in victim services.
This trauma can come from seeing someone else’s trauma first-hand — like you may if you are a firefighter pulling up to a fatal car crash. You may also experience vicarious trauma if you’re a mental health professional listening to someone recount their assault, a social worker reading the files of children who have been abused or are in other situations where you hear descriptions of trauma.
Certain people may be more at risk for vicarious trauma than others.
Those who may be more at risk include people who:
Are isolated (on the job or off)
Have previously experienced trauma
Avoid their feelings or struggle to express them
Are less experienced at their job
Have constant exposure to trauma
Don’t have a support system
For some people, the symptoms of vicarious trauma can mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder. They include:
Shutting down, or feeling numb
Difficulty managing emotions
Sleep issues, like fatigue or trouble falling asleep
Feeling hopeless about the future
Violent outbursts or irritability
Unhealthy coping mechanisms, like overeating or substance abuse
Getting distracted easily
If you are in a field that is prone to experiencing vicarious trauma, there are things you can do to try to mitigate or prevent it.
Some behaviors that may help prevent vicarious trauma include:
Limiting your exposure: This may not be possible for all professions, but if you are able to manage your exposure to trauma, it can help. For example, if you are a therapist, try to limit your number of patients with extreme trauma.
Joining support groups: If your profession offers support groups, join one! Speaking to others in your line of work who are experiencing similar things can make you feel less alone.
Engaging in healthy activities: Whether it’s socializing with friends or working out, people who engage in healthy activities outside of work may not be as vulnerable to secondary trauma.
The above tactics can also help you cope if you have vicarious trauma. There are also specific steps you can take to treat vicarious trauma, including:
Acknowledging it: If you want to solve an issue, you have to admit there is one. You can only take the steps you need to deal with it when you admit that you may be experiencing vicarious trauma. Plus, you may even feel relief by giving your emotions a name.
Taking care of yourself: If you are encountering non-stop trauma at work, you need to give yourself a break. Make sure you have a healthy work-life balance and take your vacation days. You should also make sure you are doing things that help you feel good outside of work, like eating well, working out or other self-care practices.
Seeking out professional help: While you may be a care provider in your job, that doesn’t mean you don’t need a care provider of your own. Therapy can be an incredibly helpful tool in navigating secondary trauma.
Looking for more help? The Office for Victims of Crime has also put together a vicarious trauma tool kit, which is filled with specific advice and helpful resources for people in different professions.
People who work with victims of trauma may experience vicarious trauma, which is also called secondary trauma or compassion fatigue. The idea is when you’re exposed to others’ trauma, it can have mental health implications for you too, not sure the person who experienced the trauma.
People who are in emergency services, sexual assault trauma counselors, mental health professionals, law enforcement and other jobs that serve trauma survivors may all deal with this condition. Vicarious trauma symptoms include violent outbursts, shutting down, fatigue and more.
It should be noted that this condition is different from job burnout.
Work-related trauma exposure that leads to vicarious trauma can be dealt with by maintaining a good work-life balance, embracing self-care practices and seeking out therapy.
If you’d like to speak with a mental health professional about vicarious trauma, consider scheduling an online consultation now.
Start your mental wellness journey today.