Vicarious Trauma

Family, friends and colleagues of people who have experienced abuse can struggle with distressing feelings of overwhelm, upset, shock and grief. The professionals who routinely come in contact with trauma and suffering as part of their work lives are also affected. Regular interaction with trauma can take a toll on the medical practitioners who treat injuries that result from abuse, on law enforcement officers who investigate crime, on counselors who provide emotional support, on members of the legal system who strive to administer justice, on religious leaders who provide spiritual support, on forensic examiners who process evidence and all other helpers that are charged with supporting others through difficult times or are somehow—directly or indirectly—working to end to hardship and suffering of others.  

We refer to these effects as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma happens when we accumulate and carry the stories of trauma—including images, sounds, resonant details—we have heard, which then come to inform our worldview. 

If you think of trauma as information, vicarious trauma is information overload. There is a limit to what we are able to take in and process. The stories of trauma and suffering start to fill us up and can become part of us. Vicarious trauma is a human response to the experience of coming face-to-face with the reality of trauma and the difficulties of the human experience. It can slowly shift our outlook and deny us the perspective of a world that exists beyond the traumatic experience. 

You may also hear these some of these experiences and effects referred to in different terms, like compassion fatigue, secondary trauma or burnout. While each of these terms describe slightly different experiences, the common thread in all of them is that we experience harm to ourselves—often in the hopes of helping others—beyond what we can normally be expected to handle.  When we combine this with the fact that each of us comes to this work with our own stressors and often, our own trauma histories, it's clear why our bodies and minds fill up to the brink of what they can handle.

“It’s a proven fact that we hold on to trauma. How can somebody who’s holding so much trauma be of service to someone else if they’re full up? You’ve got to empty the glass.”

 – Mariska Hargitay

While this is a reality that those in the helping professions face on a day-to-day basis, the good news is that more solutions are emerging, both to support those suffering and to prevent these experiences from happening in the first place. And through an emerging field of research, we now know much more about the impact of bearing witness to suffering and working in professions where the need constantly outweighs the available resources. As a result, we are now better prepared to proactively transform the way we do our work to promote sustainable practices that will mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma.

Joyful Heart is committed to partnering with professionals addressing vicarious trauma. To learn more about our unique approach to this work, called Heal the Healers, click here.

In this section, you can find more information on terms and topics related to vicarious trauma, the effects of vicarious trauma and resources.

Click on any of these topics to learn more.

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