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Understanding Vicarious Trauma

Understanding Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma occurs when an individual who was not directly affected by an event takes on some of the traumatic effects of that event and this affects their own behaviour and their beliefs.

It is not only victims of violence and abuse who can be traumatised by their experience. Those who help them can experience difficult reactions too.  

Often when we work with victims of violence and abuse we don’t just feel for them or sympathise with them.  We empathise with them and in doing so; we put ourselves in their shoes which can blur emotional boundaries. Hearing from those who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual violence or any form of violence against women will affect you over time, particularly if you are hearing about terrible experiences.

This is a completely normal, human response and is important in establishing a strong relationship with your client; however, it does put you at risk of experiencing what is known as  vicarious trauma.  

Some other terms used to describe similar issues are secondary traumatization, secondary stress disorder, insidious trauma and compassion fatigue. All of these describe types of distress arising from professional work with those who have experienced trauma.

Signs and symptoms of Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma often carries many of the same symptoms as first-hand trauma. It can affect people in the following ways:

  • Behaviour: Affecting sleep, eating habits, potentially increased use of damaging substances such as alcohol or drugs.
  • Physical affects: Leading to panicky symptoms and hyper-vigilance – sweating, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness, aches and pains and a weakened immune system.
  • Cognitive symptoms: Lowered self-esteem and increased self-doubt, trouble concentrating, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, repetitive images of the trauma.
  • Emotional symptoms: Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, numbness, anxiety, sadness and/or depression.
  • Social symptoms: Withdrawal and isolation, irritability and intolerance, decreased interest in intimacy and changes in parenting style (e.g. becoming overprotective).

Managing the impact of your work on yourself

These symptoms may sound quite scary but not many people will experience them all and there are lots of things which can be done to manage the impact on you. Below are some things organisations and individuals can do to manage the impact of your work.

Organisations should:

  • acknowledge that distress is possible and completely normal when working with victims of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence
  • ensure team meetings address the emotional consequences of the work, and spend time reviewing particularly difficult cases/processes
  • ensure less experienced staff have more support and offer a buddy/safety net system to embed peer support in the workplace
  • consider clinical supervision for staff. This must be on offer to those working in specialist violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence services
  • celebrate success! Ensure staff have time to focus on what has been achieved and the impact they have made on clients.

Individuals should:

  • acknowledge distress and trauma caused by your work, see it as normal and consider what further support might help you
  • engage in clinical supervision where this on offer
  • review your own coping strategies and consider ways in which you can ensure you spend time with friends and family, undertake social activities you enjoy and relax
  • review your workload and share concerns you have with your manager.  Workloads of only high risk, high need, traumatic cases will bring extra challenges – are there ways of varying the types of work you do?
  • take breaks, throughout the day and by using your annual leave allocation.

This section was developed based on the work of Dr Noelle Robertson, University of Leicester. 

Policies & Guidance

Find relevant guidance and information on the VAWDASV Act.

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About Live Fear Free

Live Fear Free is a Welsh Government website, providing information and advice for those suffering with violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

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