To better understand the power of our minds, I’d invite you to try an experiment. Picture a piece of chocolate cake. Imagine yourself pressing a fork into the cake and scooping up a bite. Notice the heavy scent of the chocolate. The frosting is moist and thick. Now lift the fork into your mouth. If you are like most people, you will inadvertently find yourself salivating when doing this exercise. This is because our brains are able to create (or recreate) experiences in our imaginations that can result in demonstrable, physical reactions. This is also true of storytelling. When a person hears a story of violence or repeated struggle, our empathic imagining can inadvertently trigger a physiological reaction (similar to the cake). The listener may find themselves experiencing similar responses to what the victim of trauma may have experienced (a racing heart, hyperarousal, emotional reactivity, increased awareness of illusory threats). This is referred to as “Vicarious” or “Secondary” Trauma and is more common than many realize.
Without strong coping strategies, repeated exposure to others’ trauma can alter one’s worldview, impact relationships, and mimic symptoms of PTSD. Such exposure often takes place while supporting a loved one or in a profession (first responders, doctors, social workers, therapists, journalists, etc.)
Signs Of Vicarious Trauma
- Hypervigilance in seemingly safe situations
- Intrusive thoughts
- Sleep disturbances or nightmares
- Increased avoidance (such as delaying work, missing deadlines, or canceling social plans)
- Somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, brain fog)
- Shifts in base emotional state (increased feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, or irritability)
- Feeling numb or detached from friends or family
- Burnout or Compassion Fatigue
Tools For Managing Vicarious Trauma
Putting Word To Thought
Research shows that one of the most effective ways to treat trauma is through verbalization (or talk therapy). When we put words to experiences, it provides a framework for understanding and conceptualizing that which we’ve experienced (or with vicarious trauma, visualized). If you work in an environment in which you are exposed to tragedy, it might help to debrief with coworkers before you go home. If you are supporting a loved one through a traumatic experience, get support from a friend or therapist. It’s important to remember that you are not alone.
Contain Your Thoughts
If you’re struggling to find a debriefing partner, visualization activities are helpful as well. Visualization helps to stimulate a part of the brain that discerns the difference between anxiety triggers and actual threats of danger. I especially like the “Container” exercise. In the container exercise, you place traumatic or disturbing thoughts or images into a mental container. This container can hold onto those thoughts until the time you can better handle them. To try the container technique, use the script below:
The Container Technique
– Visualize a container of your choice, such as a suitcase, a treasure chest, or a large jar.
– Take three deep belly breaths (imagine your belly is a big balloon that you fill with air), and let out the air slowly.
– Take a couple of minutes to imagine all of the upsetting things going into this container. One by one, stuff them in your container. These are thoughts getting in the way of you having a calm and enjoyable day. Watch them go in the container – the big things that happened this morning or last night, and even the small annoyances throughout your day.
– Once you are satisfied that they are all in there, seal the container and imagine yourself putting it away. Mentally lock it up in a file cabinet, drop it off in someone else’s office, take it down to the reference library for safekeeping, or place it in the bottom of the ocean. Take a few more deep belly breaths, and continue with your day. Remember, you can place items in your container whenever you need and can retrieve them if/when you feel ready to explore them further.
If you struggle to set and maintain boundaries with other people, the likelihood of experiencing secondary trauma increases. This is because it is difficult to separate yourself from the tragedy without holding boundaries, thus lessening your ability to be supportive. It’s the difference between coming across a person at the bottom of a well and giving them a rope to climb out (providing support), or climbing into the well with them (getting into the trouble spot). Both may initially seem like a good way to be supportive, but one allows for a way forward while the other creates a situation in which you’re both stuck. Learn your emotional and physical limits and stay within them. Remember, it’s okay to say “no” or to provide other resources when you aren’t up to the task.
Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Although it’s a simple concept, in theory, it’s something we very often overlook. Good self-care is key to improved mood and reduced anxiety. Dedicate time to self-care activities—journaling, taking time off from work, enjoying music, spending time with loved ones, pursuing hobbies, and so on. Putting yourself first gives you the energy, peace of mind, and positive outlook to be more present with others, allowing you to “be there” for them through tragedy. When you’re in a better place, you will have the wherewithal to be a better parent, partner, co-worker, or friend.
Vicarious trauma is not a sign of weakness. It is the cost of connecting with people who have experienced tragedy or abuse – of bearing witness and of empathic engagement with those affected. Protect yourself in your supportive role by using your own coping skills.