Related Terms and Definitions

While vicarious trauma is most commonly used, you may also hear similar experiences referred to in the following terms which hold slightly different meanings. While these terms often overlap, each has unique characteristics as well. Understanding similar terms and the variations in the experience they describe is helpful as you begin to identify your own personal experience or the experience of someone you care about.

Vicarious trauma is often defined as a change in a person’s inner experience or the cumulative effect of bearing witness to the suffering of others on a person. At times, this can result in experiencing similar distressing thoughts, feelings or somatic experiences related to traumatic exposure as those of the people we are serving. Intrusive thoughts and images or avoidance of situations that are related to trauma or the workplace are some common examples.

Compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress can be described as the deterioration of our ability to empathetically respond to the pain and suffering of others. As we continually offer support and compassion to others—but are not able to nourish ourselves—we can be left feeling depleted of our inner resources. Just as vicarious trauma fills us up with stories, compassion fatigue drains us of energy, vitality and optimism. Compassion fatigue can make us feel resentful towards family, friends and colleagues, and of those we seek to help. This feeling of having nothing left to give can make it difficult to find the compassion necessary to serve the people we intend to serve and to nurture our personal and professional relationships, and, most importantly, ourselves. 

Burnout can occur when the demands placed on an individual exceeds available resources. Burnout is related to stressful working conditions that leave the worker with feelings of frustration and powerlessness. When a worker is unsupported and overburdened, the resulting low job satisfaction and sense of being overwhelmed can be characterized as burnout. The condition can make a person more vulnerable to vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, but is the consequence of the challenging work conditions, not the difficult material, that precipitates burnout.  

Trauma exposure response is a general term used to describe all responses to trauma exposure including burnout and compassion fatigue. For more information on trauma exposure response, an excellent resource is Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, by Laura van Dernot Lispky with Connie Burk.

Trauma mastery is a term that refers to the healing from trauma by re-visiting it or recreating situations similar to the incident with the hopes of experiencing a different outcome. The re-visiting of the trauma can occur in different ways. For example, a survivor may remember a repressed memory, which may support his or her recovery process and in this way begin to cope with the feelings surrounding the trauma. Others may become involved with the issue space in hopes of healing. Healers who have experienced a personal trauma may feel the need to support others as a way of contributing to more positive outcomes than what they experienced. Although this can be a constructive way of mastering a personal trauma, it cannot substitute one’s own recovery process.

Most of the above terms—vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress, burnout and trauma exposure response—can be experienced separately or in combination with one another. How each challenge manifests is individual and varies from person to person and circumstance to circumstance. However, any and all manifestations can lead to negative physical, emotional, and relational health outcomes for individuals and organizations and, as the situation escalates, the cycle feeds on itself. Francoise Mathieu explains, “Ironically, helpers who are burned out, worn down, fatigued, and traumatized tend to work more and harder. As a result they go further and further down a path that can lead to serious physical and mental health difficulties.”

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