About the Issue

It is part of the human condition to be affected by the pain of others, especially if one feels a responsibility to “make things right.” Over time—and as a result of cumulative exposure to suffering—someone experiencing vicarious trauma may have the sense that all the upsetting things they see and hear are slowly seeping in. It may seem as if something has shifted inside and this person could feel fundamentally different from how they did back when they first started helping others. 

"It has been decades since I can recall feeling joy in my work.  I know I should be happy and filled with gratitude, but it has been just squeezed out of me."

Some people struggle with feelings of depletion, overwhelm, vulnerability and acute sensitivity, while others may construct a set of rigid defenses to keep distressing feelings, images and stories at bay. Such reactions are attempts manage and process an increasingly high volume of traumatic information. They are widespread and even rational reactions to these feelings.

Unfortunately, these responses may inhibit our individual health and wellness, as well as our ability to be our full selves and do our best work. 

Thankfully, this work can be done in a sustainable way that protects the health and wellness of those doing it and that benefits the community. We can mitigate the detrimental consequences of vicarious trauma through education, self-awareness and participation in activities to prevent vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout. As we become educated about the ways we are affected by trauma individually and organizationally and explore strategies that assist in managing trauma, we are able to rekindle a light of wellness that radiates out from the helper and enables her/him to share that light with others.

As vicarious trauma develops as a field of study, more information is available about what contributes to an individual experiencing—or being at risk to experiencing—these negative consequences. Having multiple risk factors does not mean you will definitely experience vicarious trauma. It does, however, indicate that you would likely greatly benefit from creating proactive strategies in your life and work environment to promote sufficient and significant time away from work and ensure your body and mind have ample time to renew themselves on a regular basis. 

Think of work engagement as a marathon, not a sprint. And while the very real life and death pressures may push us to sprint, the reality is that we can serve more people over the long term—and serve them better—if we pace ourselves during the marathon and receive support along the way.

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