Vicarious Trauma: How it Affects You Without You Knowing It & How To Use It To Your Benefit

Vicarious or secondary trauma is a term used to explain burnout in caretakers who work with individuals who have suffered a traumatic or series of traumatic events. I know that sounds a little complicated but to illustrate its meaning, imagine you have a daughter who has recently been abused in some way. Because of the level of empathy you have for your daughter, you will begin to experience traumatic symptoms even though the trauma did not directly happen to you. This is what we call vicarious trauma. In many circumstances, sufferers do not recognize the signs or symptoms and do not receive the necessary help in order to overcome the difficulty–mainly because the primary concern is to treat the person who experienced the trauma.

As a residential staff since 2009, I have heard my fair share of horror stories from the students, things I thought only happen to people on the news but never in real life. At first it was easy for me to cope with: they’re now in a safe place, they are getting the help they need, etc. but over time, after hearing these stories day in and day out, a form of fatigue started to build and I became jaded, resentful and sometimes bitter towards the whole world. When these feelings emerge people become drained of their energy, their spirituality might go out the window, and the littlest things tend to set them off sometimes resulting in angry tirades.

Many of you are probably shaking your heads remembering the most recent example of this. Well, you are not alone. Many of us have been there, we’ve done it and now we can learn how to fix it. The first step in changing is to acknowledge the problem. Fair enough. Sounds like we’ve already started that process and, bonus, we’ve attached words to it to make it easier to recognize. Second, we need to change our perspective about trauma and what it means to you but to those around you.

In general, trauma is a necessary component for growth and development. Now, I’m not saying everyone needs something terrible to happen to them … quite the opposite; I would love to live in a world of peace and happiness with no trauma. But no, what I mean is that trauma can be something as simple as losing a beloved pet for the first time. I remember losing my first pet whose name was Spot, he was a trout my father had caught about 30 minutes before he (the fish, not my dad) passed away in my bath tub. To many, that situation wouldn’t have meant much. “It was meant to be eaten.” “It’s impressive that it didn’t die on the way home.” “Trouts aren’t pets.” etc. but to me, and my little, five-and-a-half-year-old mind, it didn’t matter. I had to work through the grief process (which involved a lot of crying), I had to come to terms with my idea of post-death understanding (trout heaven), I had to pull my family together in order to make it through this difficult and trying time (mom and dad held a brief funeral before throwing him in the frying pan), ultimately, I grew from that situation and as silly as it may sound, I’m a 28 year old man who still remembers that day and all of the sadness, all of the hurt and all of the pain. That illustrates just how real that moment was for me and it also goes to show everyone experiences trauma just a little differently.

Four years ago I lost my grandmother and the feelings I felt when I heard the news were similar to those I felt for Spot Finally, the day my grandmother passed arrived…and I was ready. I was ready to grieve, I was ready to remember the love she showed me, I was ready to let go, but never forget her. That is the beauty in small forms of trauma, they are the building blocks that we use to handle the larger issues in our lives and they give us opportunities to practices these skills before they become insurmountable.

So, here is the paradigm shift for vicarious trauma; are you ready? What if you could use the trauma of others to help transform you? The technical jargon for what I am talking about is vicarious transformation and this is what I mean by it. A few years ago, I had the unique opportunity to meet Elizabeth Smart (if you don’t remember her, google her name, you’ll remember real quickly). We are both the same age and lived in relatively close proximity of each other so her story resonated with me. As I listened to her memoir, I was amazed at her ability to take the experience and move passed it without a second thought.

I immediately got to thinking – that is what I do best: How is it that she could go through these terrible circumstances and come out such an amazing person full of compassion, empathy and self-respect without ever having to go to therapy? She explained the key characteristic: she refused to be a victim; she is instead, a survivor. Yeah, something terrible happened. Yeah, she lost a large part of her youth. And yeah, no doubt she experiences difficulties from that ordeal to this day but she made the conscious decision to never let those people take away any more of her life.

Wow… How powerful is that? My biggest concern in life is finding a date for Saturday night (and not getting mopey about it when I can’t!) Then here she is saying that things were bad but it always could have been worse and she was just grateful to be through the ordeal.

My life was transformed through her experience. I empathized with her and felt the trauma vicariously through her story. In that moment I reevaluated my life and took her message of gratitude, survivorship, and looking forward, never back as a means to battle my own demons and now I know I can handle anything and still come out okay.

I no longer fear hardship. I still don’t like it, but at least I don’t fear it. I no longer have to avoid the horror stories my students share because I now know how to empathize with them, embrace their pain and use it to make me a better role model, a better friend and a better person.

To end, I’ll leave you with this quote from Jacqui Dillion:

“If we can embrace, rather than fending off, other people’s extraordinary pain, our humanity is expanded. In this receptive mode, our caring is deepened. People who have suffered trauma and abuse can feel that we are allowing them to affect us. This reciprocal process conveys respect. We learn from trauma survivors that people can endure horrible things and carry on. This knowledge is a gift we can pass along to others.”

The third and final part to dealing with vicarious trauma is to make self-care a priority. Look for my future posts which will focus on simple, daily tasks that can help keep you fresh and renewed to offer more to your teen and give them the best help possible.