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Vicarious Trauma: What is it and How Does it Affect Me?

By Albie Nicol


According to the American Counseling Association vicarious trauma is described as the following: “sometimes also called compassion fatigue, is the latest term that describes the phenomenon generally associated with the “cost of caring” for others” which, in theory, sounds pretty harmless, right? Wrong.

Another definition provided by the same American Counseling Association is: “the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” This definition paints a more clear picture of how vicarious traumatization is very prevalent in the field of sex workers, social workers, lawyers, counselors, sexual assault advocates, doctors, you know— people who work for the greater good but have to witness the worst of the worst to do so.

Because these individuals are constantly hearing literal horror stories from the people they serve or come in contact with daily, it is hard to have a healthy emotional outlet without feeling like they’re not doing their job as much as they can, and as well as they can.

I can guarantee you know someone who fits into one of those positions listed above, maybe even you, yourself fit into one of these positions. Which is why it’s important to understand what vicarious trauma can look like in manifestation.


Here are some tell-tale signs of vicarious traumatization to look for: losing sleep over patients, worrying they aren’t doing all they can for a patient, feeling trapped by their work or workload, startled easily / more jumpy than usual, dropping out of commitments to work or community, avoiding colleagues, low motivation, rejecting emotional and physical intimacy. These are just a few symptoms as listed by the American Counseling Association, but they’re a place to start.

While a lot of factors play a role in helping an individual deal with vicarious traumatization, here are some beginning steps you can take to help your friend, coworker, family member, or even yourself: talking to them about the impact of the work they’re doing, helping them establish clear and ritual boundaries from work to home, encouraging them to talk with their supervisor about their emotions, and supporting their relationships with friends, coworkers, and family members.

Vicarious trauma when left unaddressed can have a lot of negative effects and is in turn a very dangerous situation. The individual affected will oftentimes feel alienated from their work, causing them to shuffle from job to job, and leaving their clients or patients in the dark scrambling to find a new provider or caretaker. This is why it is important to educate yourself and keep a sharp eye on those around you in these professions.

We can’t stop vicarious trauma from being a situation— but we can support those who are dealing with it, and help them get the support they need. It is those that carry the weight of the world who sometimes need the world to carry them.

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