MODULE FOUR | Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

PART THREE | Signs and Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma: What happens to you?

The challenges that come from opening up your heart and mind to other people’s suffering can trigger personal growth and a greater appreciation for your blessings. However, these challenges can also be so demanding that they cause some reactions similar to those experienced by people who have undergone traumatic events. Sometimes, both are true.

This section outlines some of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma. In broad terms, some common difficulties associated with vicarious trauma include:

  • Difficulty managing your emotions;
  • Difficulty accepting or feeling okay about yourself;
  • Difficulty making good decisions;
  • Problems managing the boundaries between yourself and others (e.g., taking on too much responsibility, having difficulty leaving work at the end of the day, trying to step in and control other’s lives);
  • Problems in relationships;
  • Physical problems such as aches & pains, illnesses, accidents;
  • Difficulty feeling connected to what’s going on around and within you; and
  • Loss of meaning and hope.

Probably no one will experience difficulties in all of these areas. You saw in the last section that there are individual differences in what contributes to your vicarious trauma, and there are also individual differences in how you experience and express VT. One person may primarily experience VT physically — through illness, pains, trouble sleeping, etc. Another may primarily show VT in relationships – by withdrawing from others or being irritable. For others, VT may express itself in mood – through depression or anxiety. The way we experience stress and distress is also influenced by our cultures.

Vicarious trauma results from psychological and spiritual disruptions that affect the way we see ourselves, the world, and what matters most to us. This leads to physical, psychological, spiritual, relational, and behavioral signs of VT.

The following lists some common signs of vicarious trauma in different areas. Remember that these difficulties can often result from different problems as well – they are not always due to vicarious trauma. For example, a person might have trouble sleeping because of depression, or physical pain, or many other reasons.

  • Changes in spirituality (e.g., changes in beliefs regarding meaning, purpose, causality, connection, hope, and faith). This often takes the form of questioning prior beliefs and the meaning and purpose in life. In turn, this can be connected to a sense of loss of purpose, hopelessness, and cynicism.
  • Changes in identity (e.g., changes in the way you practice or think about important identities as a professional, friend, or family member). You could, for example, find that most of your time and energy is spent in your professional role because you feel disconnected from or uncomfortable in your other roles or identities.
  • Changes in beliefs related to major psychological needs (e.g., beliefs regarding safety, control, trust, esteem, and intimacy). For example, changes in how vulnerable you believe you, and others that you care about, are to harm. In turn, these beliefs can influence your thoughts (e.g., worrying about safety issues, mistrust of strangers) and actions (e.g., being more protective of your children).
  • Hyperarousal symptoms (e.g., nightmares, difficulty concentrating, being easily startled, sleep difficulties)
  • Repeated thoughts or images regarding traumatic events, especially when you are trying not to think about it
  • Feeling numb
  • Feeling unable to tolerate strong emotions
  • Increased sensitivity to violence
  • Cynicism
  • Generalized despair and hopelessness, and loss of idealism
  • Guilt regarding your own survival and/or pleasure
  • Anger
  • Digust
  • Fear
  • Difficulty setting boundaries and separating work from personal life
  • Feeling like you never have time or energy for yourself
  • Feeling disconnected from loved ones, even when communicating with them
  • Increased conflict in relationships
  • General social withdrawal
  • Experiencing the “silencing response” – finding yourself unable to pay attention to other’s distressing stories because they seem overwhelming and incomprehensible; and directing people to talk about less distressing material
  • Decreased interest in activities that used to bring pleasure, enjoyment, or relaxation
  • Irritable, intolerant, agitated, impatient, needy, and/or moody
  • Increased dependencies or addictions involving nicotine, alcohol, food, sex, shopping , internet, and/or other substances
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Impulsivity

Think about…

  • Write down any signs of VT that you have experienced this week.
  • Think back over the last couple of years. What are your early warning signs of vicarious trauma (i.e., the first signals that warn you that you’re struggling in this area)

How can your vicarious trauma affect others?

Earlier in this section we looked at signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma. These signs and symptoms might be happening to you, but they don’t only affect you. Unaddressed vicarious trauma also affects your family, your organization, and those you are working to help.

Your family and friends

Your struggles can have a serious impact on your family and friends. Things that can be related to vicarious trauma (such as withdrawal, overusing alcohol, lack of sleep, diminished sexuality, parental over-protectiveness, loss of compassion and hope) all influence the way you interact with those you love. If you are experiencing vicarious trauma and don’t think it’s affecting your family and close friends… ask them.

Vicarious trauma influences the way you act and interact with people you love. This affects your family and friends.

Think about…

Consider asking people you are close to (your spouse, family members, or close friends) the following:

  • What have you noticed about the way I behave and appear to feel when I’m under pressure?
  • In what ways do you think my work has impacted me during the last week/month/year?
  • From your point of view, how does this most impact you/other people whom you care about?

Your work

Unrecognized and unaddressed vicarious trauma can also affect your work, your colleagues, the overall functioning of the organization, and the quality of assistance being provided to those you are working to help.

Humanitarian workers impacted by vicarious trauma are more likely to do some or all of the following:

  • Make decisions without adequate reflection;
  • Make mistakes that cost time or money, and may even put people at risk;
  • Take on too much work, or assignments that the team or agency is ill-prepared to complete (or complete well);
  • Not fulfill commitments;
  • Take excessive unplanned time off;
  • Blame others instead of seeking understanding and productive collaboration;
  • Devalue and/or ridicule beneficiaries, staff, managers, or donors; and
  • Infect colleagues with their own cynicism, depression, and/or lack of motivation.
Vicarious trauma can negatively affect your work, your colleagues, the overall functioning of the organization, and the quality of assistance being provided to those you are working to help.

Think about…

  • If you have struggled with vicarious trauma in the past, or feel you may be struggling with it now, what are some ways your vicarious trauma may impact your work?
  • What are some ways that colleagues’ vicarious trauma has affected you?
  • Think about your own “early warning signs for VT” that you identified earlier. How might these impact your family, your colleagues, and your work?
© Headington Institute 2008