Tired? Angry? Hopeless? Vicarious Trauma Could be to Blame
Contributed by Alex Baker, Clinical Supervisor, PEP Willow Creek Day Treatment Center
You come home from a long day of work, having crossed a couple items off your “to-do” list, helped a few co-workers, and generally accomplished a lot. So, why do you feel so upset? Why do you feel so tired? And why are these feelings becoming more and more common to you?
Trauma’s Long-Term Impact
By now you have probably heard of trauma – challenging, difficult, or painful events that can impact the way we live our lives or make decisions. Trauma can be big or small, and can be a singular event, ongoing and repeated, or anywhere in between. Often there is a link between the size or number of traumatic experiences and the negative impact it has on our lives. Left untreated, trauma can lead to symptoms like anger, hostility or fatigue.
But if you’re the one doing the helping, not the one who had the traumatic experiences, why are you still feeling so angry and tired all the time?
The answer might be something called vicarious trauma.
Possible Indicators of Vicarious Trauma
As it turns out, experts on trauma have found that caregivers, helpers, and people who work with those who have experienced painful life events can begin to absorb some of that trauma (hence the name vicarious trauma). The response to this absorbed trauma can often look just like the response to the original trauma itself. It can happen to teachers, parents, counselors, medical staff, or anyone in a helping profession. Here are some things you might notice if you’re experiencing vicarious trauma:
- Nightmares/difficulty sleeping
- Withdrawal from friends or family
- Resentment that won’t go away
- Intense rage and/or bouts of crying
- Emotional numbness
- Loss of hope
The Unintended Impact of Vicarious Trauma
If you’ve found yourself nodding your head to any of these potential symptoms, it might be time to get some help. One of the nastiest things about trauma, even the vicarious variety, is that it can begin to make the problem worse. Research, as well as our own experience, has shown us that kids who have experienced trauma need caregivers who offer patience, connection, energy, gentleness, confidence, and emotional stability.
But if you take another glance at the list above, your symptoms of vicarious trauma may be depriving kids of the resources they so desperately need. And – in the worst of cases – may even be re-traumatizing them.
So, what do we do? The good news is, there are a lot of experts talking about healing from trauma these days, and there is an ever-growing amount of research and evidence-based practice that can give us some guidance.
It’s worth noting that everyone’s healing process will look a little different (and take different amounts of time). Your healing journey must be specific to you and your situation. There are, however, some first steps you can take that will start you off on the right foot.
- Acknowledge the Problem
If you admitted to any of the symptoms listed above, you may have already started the process of healing. After all, if you can’t recognize that something needs to change, you won’t be likely to make any changes in a meaningful way.
- Be Kind to Yourself
Hearing that you may not be helping in the way you want to, or that you might be making things worse can be tough, especially for people who identify as helpers or caregivers. But listen, this wouldn’t be the focus of tons of research if it wasn’t a common problem. There are so many people out there who are struggling with vicarious trauma, so you’re not alone. Remember that nobody is perfect. Allow yourself to make some mistakes, and acknowledge some of the things you want to do that will help you start to heal.
- Talk to Your Supervisor (or a Friend)
Our brains are hard-wired to connect with others ̶ plus, it will help to get it off your chest. If you work in a helping profession, your supervisor should know about vicarious trauma, and should be able to make some recommendations to help. If they don’t, their supervisor should. And whether it’s a supervisor or a friend, they can help you start to identify some of the specific areas in your life that are not working. Knowing that can help you start to develop that picture of what your healing journey will look like.
- Seek Professional Help
Full disclosure: I am a licensed counselor. More full disclosure: I have sought counseling in the past and will probably do so again. Even more disclosure: I think everyone in the whole entire world could benefit from the honest, considerate self-assessment and support of a counselor, social worker, or therapist. So, you’ll understand when I say that if you do nothing else on this list, please do this one. A licensed professional is most likely trained in trauma (and if they’re not, find one who is) and will be the one who individualizes your healing journey and guides you through the process.
- Prioritize Self Care
Putting yourself first often sounds counter-intuitive to lifelong helpers. However, as you’ll hopefully find through work with your licensed professional, it is absolutely necessary. If it’s still difficult to imagine, think of it as helping yourself so you are able to help others. Your healing will take time and energy, and that often means you’ll need to take some time and energy away from things that were getting your attention in the past. That can be end up being temporarily hard on you, or on those around you, but it is essential to healing.
Remember, these are broad strokes to healing vicarious trauma. No two people’s processes will look the same. Nor will anyone’s journey be easy or straightforward. So many unknowns can be scary, especially at first. But when you really think about it ̶ now that you know about it, can you afford not to?
- On the Internet – Vicarious Trauma and The Sanctuary Model
- To watch – Beyond the Cliff: Ted Talk by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
- To read – Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
For more information or questions about vicarious trauma contact Alex Baker, clinical supervisor, via email.