MODULE FOUR | Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

PART ONE | What is vicarious trauma?

Most simply put, vicarious trauma can be thought of as the negative changes that happen to humanitarian workers over time as they witness other people’s suffering and need. While many humanitarian workers are changed positively by their experiences, here we focus on the negatives. These negative changes are the cost of caring for and caring about others who have been hurt. We could therefore define vicarious trauma this way:

Vicarious trauma is the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible to help them. Over time this process can lead to changes in your psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Think about…

  • Looking at the definition, what questions do you have about vicarious trauma?

Now, let’s take that definition apart and look at each element for a deeper understanding of how vicarious trauma relates to humanitarian work.

Vicarious trauma is a process of change

Vicarious trauma is a process that unfolds over time. It is not just your responses to one person, one story, or one situation. It is the cumulative effect of contact with survivors of violence or disaster or people who are struggling. It is what happens to you over time as you witness cruelty and loss and hear distressing stories, day after day, and year after year.

This process of change is ongoing. Your experiences of vicarious trauma are continuously being influenced by your life experiences (both those you choose and those that simply happen to you in the course of your professional and personal lives). This is an important point because it provides hope: as the process of VT unfolds, there are many opportunities along the way to recognize the impact your work is having on you and to think about how to protect and care for yourself while doing that work.

Vicarious trauma is an ongoing process of change over time that results from witnessing or hearing about other people’s suffering and need.

Think about…

  • What are some ways that you have changed over time because of your work?

Vicarious trauma happens because you care about people who have been hurt.

Vicarious trauma happens because you care – because you empathize with people who are hurting. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person, to understand and feel another person’s pain and joy.

Empathy doesn’t mean feeling exactly what someone else is feeling. Everyone is unique. Everyone has his or her own personal history, personality, and life circumstances. You cannot ever feel exactly what someone else is feeling. But to a certain extent (and more effectively in some cases than others), when you care, you can relate to other people’s experiences, reactions, and feelings. And when you care about and identify with the pain of people who have endured terrible things, you bring their grief, fear, anger, and despair into your own awareness and experience and feel it along with them in some way.

When you identify with the pain of people who have endured terrible things, you bring their grief, fear, anger, and despair into your own awareness and experience.

Think about…

  • What sort of problems or people do you find it especially easy to empathize with?
  • What are some ways that caring about people who have been hurt affects you?

Vicarious trauma happens not only because you care about people who have been hurt, but because you feel committed or responsible to help.

At its core, the point of humanitarian work is to serve and collaborate with people who need help. Humanitarian workers do that in many different ways. Some work as advocates; some help provide food, shelter, sanitation, or medical services; some work in community or economic development, or peace-building.

Whatever your particular role, as a humanitarian worker you are in the business of helping people who may have experienced terrifying violence and profound losses. Many of these people are desperate and some have lost hope. Humanitarian workers assume a heavy responsibility by showing up and conveying the message, “I’m here to help. There is hope.”

Many humanitarian workers are very committed to their work and take this responsibility very deeply. This is not necessarily a bad thing! However, feeling deeply committed and responsible can contribute to the process of vicarious trauma. It can lead to very high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations of yourself and others, and for the results you want to see from your work. For example, you may take it personally when your work or the work of your organization doesn’t have the impact you want. Ironically, your sense of commitment and responsibility can eventually contribute to you feeling burdened, overwhelmed, and hopeless in the face of great need and suffering. It can also lead you to extend yourself beyond what is reasonable for your own well-being or the best long-term interests of beneficiaries.

Your commitment and sense of responsibility can lead to high expectations and eventually contribute to your feeling burdened, overwhelmed, and perhaps hopeless.

Think about…

  • How does your sense of commitment and responsibility to your work help you?
  • Are there ways in which your sense of commitment and responsibility to your work might hurt you? How?

Over time, vicarious trauma leads to changes in your own psychological and spiritual well-being.

Vicarious trauma is the result of opening up your heart and mind to the worst in human experience – natural and human-made disasters, and human cruelty. When you witness the suffering of people you care about and feel responsible to help, over time this can change the way that you see yourself, the world, and what matters to you. These challenges can change your spirituality (your deepest sense of meaning and purpose, hope and faith).

A key component of vicarious trauma is changes in spirituality. Not all of the spiritual changes that come from humanitarian work are negative! Many humanitarian workers feel they have grown and matured as the result of things they have seen and experienced. You may feel you gain a broader and more balanced perspective on life and end up better able to understand and empathize with others.

However, witnessing disasters, violence, and suffering can challenge your spirituality in less positive ways. 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 often use the phrase “existential angst” to refer to their sense that they are constantly being pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to question the meaning of events, and their own and others’ actions and reactions.

A key component of vicarious trauma is changes in spirituality. Vicarious trauma, like experiencing trauma directly, can deeply impact the way you see the world and your deepest sense of meaning and hope.

Think about…

  • What are two ways you feel your work has had a positive influence on the way you see the world, yourself, or what matters to you (your sense of meaning and purpose, hope and faith)?
  • What are two ways you feel your work has had a negative influence on the way you see the world, yourself, or what matters to you (your sense of meaning and purpose, hope and faith)?

So, what should you do about vicarious trauma?

Being impacted by vicarious trauma is a predicable outcome of being in a job that is focused on helping others during or after traumatic experiences. So what can you do about this? Looking at the definition we’ve just discussed, you might be thinking about several options. Should you try to stop caring so much – stop empathizing with people who are hurting? Should you stop feeling committed and responsible? Should you quit your job?

Those are options, but there are better options! Simply understanding more about vicarious trauma is a great first step. This will help you decide what you need in order to best prevent and address your vicarious trauma. Learning to be aware of and address vicarious trauma in an ongoing manner goes a long way toward making sure you don’t burn out or feel crushed by vicarious trauma, or unintentionally harm others because of its effects.

With appropriate tools, humanitarian workers and organizations can better understand, prevent, and address VT. Being beaten down by VT isn’t inevitable, but having to address it constantly is.
© Headington Institute 2008