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Vicarious Trauma

We often think of pivotal events in our life as the most impactful. This typically stems from the nature of these events; they are unique, infrequent, and somewhat vivid in our memory. On the other hand, we seldom consider the impact of events that occur on a regular basis. For some, exposure to traumatic events happens frequently yet its impact isn’t noticed until it has accumulated. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Insider about vicarious trauma (VT); that is, the trauma that a person experiences vicariously, or indirectly, through someone else. Even though an individual may not have directly experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, it can still have harmful, lasting effects on them.

While the impact of vicarious trauma is commonly seen in specific professions (e.g., doctors, nurses, crisis hotline workers), it can affect people in numerous walks of life. For example, 75% of therapists have reported experiencing "moderate" to "high" levels of vicarious trauma during the pandemic. As a result, they reported feeling less energetic, less confident, and less emotionally engaged in their work (as compared to the years prior to 2020). Racial and ethnic minorities are also impacted by VT when encountering violence against their communities, especially when graphic videos or images are consumed.

The effects of VT are similar to one of the symptom clusters of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though they tend to present as a muted response: our thoughts are affected by the emotional residue of the trauma to which we have been exposed. Witnessing the fear, pain, and terror that others have experienced can lead the mind to be preoccupied with these events; we may then begin to question and doubt our own perceptions of justness and safety within the world, as a result of repeated, emotionally intimate contact with traumatic events. Noticing the effects of VT is especially important as it is the long-term, cumulative effect often seen in those that are working to help others (e.g., trauma survivors). But, we must first ensure we are healthy before attempting to provide support to others.

Therapy functions as a vehicle for processing events that have affected us. If unable to effectively process these events, we may not notice that our outlook on life (i.e., beliefs) is slowly changing in a way that seems unfamiliar and uncomfortable to us. Therefore, therapy allows us the opportunity to identify and resolve problematic changes in our thought patterns (and feel the associated emotions). If you have found yourself negatively affected by the events you routinely encounter, Roswell Psychology is here for support.

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