MODULE FOUR | Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

PART FOUR | What Helps: Addressing Vicarious Trauma

What puts you at risk for vicarious trauma is unique – different people have different risk factors. The things that will help you address your vicarious trauma are also unique – they will reflect your own needs, experiences, interests, resources, culture, and values.

The rest of this module will look at how you can develop a plan that suits you for addressing your vicarious trauma. We’ll start by looking at two related aspects of addressing vicarious trauma – coping with it and transforming it. Then we’ll look at three important themes that can help you in designing your action plan – awareness, balance, and connection.

An effective action plan for addressing vicarious trauma will reflect your own needs, experiences, interests, resources, culture, and values.

Coping with vicarious trauma

Most humanitarian workers witness or hear about a great deal of need and suffering during the course of their work, and most humanitarian workers will probably experience some vicarious trauma as a result.

Coping with vicarious trauma means learning to live with this process so that you can do your job. It means accepting some vicarious trauma as part of the work and learning to manage it effectively on a day-to-day basis. On a practical level it means identifying strategies that can both help prevent VT from becoming severe and problematic, and help manage VT during times when it is more problematic.

Coping with vicarious trauma means identifying strategies that can both help prevent vicarious trauma from becoming severe, and help manage vicarious trauma during times when it is more problematic.

Good coping strategies are things that help you take care of yourself – especially things that help you escape, rest, and play. Among other things, these might include:

  • Escape: Getting away from it all, physically or mentally (books or films, taking a day or a week off, playing video games, talking to friends about things other than work);
  • Rest: Having no goal or time-line, or doing things you find relaxing (lying on the grass watching the clouds, sipping a cup of tea, taking a nap, getting a massage); and
  • Play: Engaging in activities that make you laugh or lighten your spirits (sharing funny stories with a friend, playing with a child, being creative, being physically active).
Good coping strategies for vicarious trauma are things that help you take care of yourself – especially those that help you escape, rest, and play.

Think about…

  • What are three activities you do regularly or enjoy doing that can help you cope with vicarious trauma?
  • Why do these activities help you in coping with vicarious trauma (Hint, think about how these activities can help counteract your risk factors for vicarious trauma, or address your specific signs of vicarious trauma).

Transforming vicarious trauma

Transforming vicarious trauma means something deeper than just coping with it. Remember that, over time, one of the key components of vicarious trauma is changes in your spirituality. You can come to question your deepest beliefs about the way life and the universe work, and the existence and nature of meaning and hope. Humanitarian workers may be confronted on a daily basis with some of the most troubling questions we as humans will ever encounter – why is there so much suffering in this world? Is there a God? If so, how could God allow such terrible things to happen? Why do people do such awful things to each other? Why them, and not me?

As your deepest beliefs are challenged and changed as a result of what you see and experience during your work, you change as a person. This isn’t always a comfortable process! Yes, you will be changed by seeing and hearing about terrible things, and by experiencing vicarious trauma. But you aren’t a helpless victim in that process. You can transform your vicarious trauma and help use these painful experiences for good.

At the deepest level, transforming vicarious trauma means identifying ways to nurture a sense of meaning and hope. What gives life and work meaning, and what instills or renews hope? Knowing how you answer these questions is important. This gives you a framework to grapple with the tough questions that humanitarian work raises – even when those questions don’t seem to have easy (or sometimes, any) answers. Finding ways to stay connected to important sources of meaning and hope in your life, even when you are being deeply challenged, will help you transform your vicarious trauma.

Transforming vicarious trauma means identifying ways to nurture a sense of meaning and hope.

You likely have sources of meaning, purpose, hope, and perspective in your life. Some ways to connection (or reconnect) with these may be:

  • Reminding yourself of the importance and value of humanitarian work;
  • Staying connected with family, friends, and colleagues;
  • Noticing and deliberately paying attention to the “little things” – small moments like sipping a cup of coffee, the sound of the wind in the trees, or brief connections with others;
  • Marking transitions, celebrating joys, and mourning losses with people you care about through traditions, rituals, or ceremonies;
  • Taking time to reflect (e.g., by reading, writing, prayer, and meditation);
  • Identifying and challenging your own cynical beliefs; and
  • Undertaking growth-promoting activities (learning, writing in a journal, being creative and artistic).

Think about…

  • What are three activities you do regularly or enjoy doing that could help you transform vicarious trauma on a deeper level?
  • What do you think the difference is between a coping and a transforming activity? Could something help you cope and be transformational at the same time? How?
© Headington Institute 2008