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Vicarious trauma impacts those in ‘helping’ professions

By Dotun Merino
26 May 2022   |   3:04 am
Also known as compassion fatigue, vicarious/secondary trauma is a process through which one’s own experience becomes transformed through engagement with an individual’s trauma.

Akindotun Merino

Also known as compassion fatigue, vicarious/secondary trauma is a process through which one’s own experience becomes transformed through engagement with an individual’s trauma. That is, trauma may not only impact the individual who experienced it but those around them. Naturally, empathetic individuals also tend to be at higher risk of secondary trauma.

In a growing number of professions, including firefighters, teachers, law enforcement, trauma doctors and nurses, child welfare workers, therapists, case managers and other helping professions, it is now understood that working with people in trauma — hearing their stories of hardship and supporting their recovery — has a far-reaching emotional effect on providers. The condition has numerous names: secondary traumatic stress (STS), “cost of caring,” or vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue.

Vicarious trauma affects the brain in much the same way that it affects the people we care for. The brain emits a fear response, releasing excessive cortisol and adrenaline that can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and release a flood of emotions.

Regularly subjecting yourself to horrific tales of death, sexual assault, or grotesque injury unsurprisingly wears on the human brain and its psychological chemistry. Researchers studying secondary trauma found that Intrusive imagery and other PTSD symptoms also appear as disruptions to the therapist’s imagery system of memory, yielding painful experiences of images and emotions associated with the client’s traumatic memories.

All those who work in the helping professions are negatively impacted at this time. Caretaking during Covid19 is dangerous, yet we have to continue to do our jobs. Here are some symptoms of vicarious trauma:
Behavioral symptoms
Sleep disturbances/Nightmares
Appetite changes
Hypervigilance
Exaggerated startle response, “jumpiness”
Losing things/Clumsiness
Self-harm behaviors
Negative coping – smoking, drinking, acting out
Physical symptoms
Panic symptoms – sweating, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness
Aches and pains
Weakened immune system
Cognitive symptoms
Minimization of your vicarious trauma
Lowered self-esteem and increased self-doubt
Trouble concentrating/Confusion/disorientation
Perfectionism
Racing thoughts
Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
Repetitive images of the trauma
Lack of meaning in life
Thoughts of harming yourself or others
Emotional symptoms
Helplessness and powerlessness
Survivor guilt
Numbness
Oversensitivity
Emotional unpredictability
Fear/Anxiety
Sadness and/or depression
Social symptoms
Withdrawal and isolation
Loneliness
Irritability and intolerance
Distrust
Projection of blame and rage
Decreased interest in intimacy
Distrust
Change in parenting style (e.g., becoming overprotective)
Risk Factors for Compassion Fatigue:
• Being new to the field
• Having a history of personal trauma or burnout
• Working long hours and/or have large caseloads
• Having inadequate support systems
Preventing and Treating Vicarious Trauma

Learn as much as you can. Responders are often totally unprepared to suffer from vicarious trauma. Know that this work will affect you and learn how to identify early warning signs of vicarious trauma and emotional distress.
Know that this is a normal reaction to doing work on traumatized persons.

Maximize collegiality and support from colleagues to avoid isolation. You are not alone.
Plan for safety with your colleagues so anyone who needs a ‘breather’ can take the needed time out. Become each other’s protectors.
Separate yourself. It is vital to remember and say to yourself, “This is not my pain. I am just holding it for a little while.” “I can release it now!”

Adopt a healthy lifestyle to ensure physical wellness (diet and exercise).
Get enough rest,

‘Food is medicine’ – Eat healthy meals. A friend of mine, Margaret Ogunbanwo, a super chef, offers a service where you send her ten things in your pantry, and she’ll send you a few recipes. Feel free to find her on Facebook or Instagram.
Exercise – we are all finding ways to exercise at home. If you have stairs at home – use it as an exercise tool. Walk the yard and if you’re not on a lock-down, walk in your neighborhood and practice social distancing.

Keep track of your levels of “burnout” or “fatigue.” Make a record on when you experience these symptoms. Collect data.
Recognize and acknowledge your own potential personal risks for vicarious trauma.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle to ensure physical wellness (diet and exercise).
Explore your spirituality and look for ways that you can connect with yourself on a deeper level. Spirituality is highly related to life satisfaction. Pray or play music during the day.

Reengage in your hobbies no matter how little time: Painting, drawing, sculpting, knitting, cooking are all therapeutic activities.
Find the ‘humor’ in situations to alleviate stress and tension.
See a Counselor. Many times, vicarious trauma takes such a toll on our lives that we need to seek professional help. Remember that you deserve this, and this will ultimately make you a better provider of care. Therapists have adjusted to COVID19 social distancing orders by offering virtual care. If you need assistance, contact us and we will try to connect you with someone in your community.

•Prof. Akindotun Merino is the CEO of Jars Education Group; a Professor of Psychology and a Mental Health Commissioner in California.
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