Identifying Vicarious Trauma

Is My Experience Related to Trauma Exposure?

Many books and websites list multiple risk factors where you can learn more about vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue or burnout. However, to start understanding these concepts a little deeper on a personal level the following questions can help you see if taking a closer look into your own experience may be beneficial.

  • Do I bear witness to the suffering of others on a regular basis?

    This could be a multitude of ways. You might hear someone tell their story, or read a case file or be debriefing with a colleague or supervisee on traumatic material. You also could be reporting on these issues for the media, managing social media content for an organization that does work in this field or answering the phone when crisis calls come in.
  • Am I in a position where I feel responsible for someone’s safety or well-being?

    This could be direct, such as helping a family relocate due to a threat of safety, or indirect, such as pressure to raise enough funds to keep crucial programs running or being involved in a prevention campaign.

If you answered yes to these two questions, learning about way to prevent or address vicarious trauma may be of support in your personal and work environment. The third question asks you to look at how you are feeling now.

  • Do I intuitively know—even if I'm not ready to say it out loud—that my work is starting to impact my health, life or relationships? 

    This is tricky to identify because the toll of vicarious trauma is slow and cumulative. Our worldview changes over time and in such a way that even if we do feel differently towards our health, life and relationships, it seems OK, if not inevitable.Right now, simply ask yourself “have I changed?” and then if so, the next section on the signs of vicarious trauma may be helpful to you as a next step in understanding your experiences.
  • Do I work harder than is healthy for my mind and body because the issue feels deeply personal to me? 

    When a healer has a personal connection to the issue space, it can be natural to feel more invested in the work. However, it is important to do so with responsibility and self-care. As healers, we are continuously exposed to the suffering of others and it is imperative that we have been able to process our own healing. Expecting to find healing through the work can set a healer up to re-experience the impact of our own trauma. In addition, in these moments, our work moves away from being in service to the members of our community, who each have their own unique healing paths.

Next section: Signs of vicarious trauma

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