Supervision & Consultation | Vicarious Traumatisation Management | Resources


Support for workers – Vicarious Trauma

Repeated exposure to narratives of trauma, exploring other peoples experiences of abuse and neglect – bearing witness to others’ distress, prolonged reading about traumatic experiences can adversely affect us as workers.

Vicarious traumatisation (VT) is an inescapable effect of trauma work. The degree, duration and frequency of exposure to that type of secondary trauma vary from work place to workplace. Thus the range of negative, cumulative effects that can develop overtime will vary as well.

When we empathically engage with a person in distress, our bodies instinctively respond to what our brain, or more precisely, the limbic system, senses as threat or danger. When our sympathetic nervous system (a branch of the autonomic nervous system) becomes activated, the body responds getting ready for defensive action. The heart rate increases, our breathing changes, muscles tighten; we can feel hot or cold, tense or nauseated. It’s important to remember that this is an automatic response.

The trauma literature suggests only one variable reliably predicts the risk of VT: repeated exposure to traumatic material. Repeated exposure can intensify the body’s natural response and subsequently impact on how we think about ourselves, our relationships, others and the world.

The negative impact of secondary trauma exposure can resolve without lasting negative effects particularly if you recognise it and attend to it by utilising effective self-care strategies and accessing support.

It seems that minimising and ignoring unwelcome physical, emotional and cognitive consequences of the work is not uncommon among trauma workers. Not noticing one’s own distress because the work is satisfying and going well is just one reason. The agency culture where using deficit language such as ‘weak’, ‘over sensitive’ ‘not coping’, ‘not up to it’, to describe workers who admit to feeling, for example, very anxious about seeing some clients, is another.

Our knowledge about the nature of vicarious traumatisation has been expanding for over 20 years. Sadly, in many work places, overtly or covertly, the deficit view still exists. When even a suggestion of accessing assistance through an EAP counsellor can feel stigmatising, paying attention to early VT warning signs is not a priority. In the short term, not speaking up may feel like the safest strategy. Over time, the cumulative impact of vicarious trauma, unacknowledged and not responded to, will get stronger.

Unaddressed symptoms of vicarious traumatisation do not dissipate spontaneously. They can jeopardise your health impacting your personal and professional life.

Please check the Practitioner profiles for individual and agency support. Adelaide Trauma Centre offer consultations focussed on managing the impact of trauma work using body-oriented strategies as well as other strategies.