Trauma: Who It Affects

Trauma can be defined in many different ways. Many of us may think of physical trauma, such as someone needing to be rushed to the emergency room after an accident or disaster. When referring to trauma and secondary/vicarious trauma in this article, we will use the following definition:

Trauma is the experience of violence or victimization including sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe neglect, loss, domestic violence or witnessing of violence, terrorism or disasters.

When people experience trauma, there is a possibility that they will choose to seek care to help them heal and cope with their experiences. When a victim comes forward needing healing, he or she may come into contact with a variety of health care providers, such as nurses, social workers, advocates, therapists, and forensic interviewers. What many of us don’t recognize is that when these health care providers are constantly exposed to this type of work, it can negatively affect their overall well-being.

Vicarious trauma (VT) is the process of change that happens when a health care provider cares about patients or clients who have been abused, and feels committed or responsible to help them. Over time this process can lead to changes in psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being. If you are a humanitarian worker, it is important to understand the process of vicarious trauma, because it will almost certainly impact you in some way. You may experience or notice changes in how you feel about yourself or others. The changes occur over time and tend to occur more often in highly empathetic individuals, people with a previous history of trauma, and newer therapists.

There are a number of possible behavioral changes that might result from vicarious traumatization, including:

  • Becoming judgmental of others
  • Having a reduced sense of connection with loved ones and colleagues
  • Becoming cynical or angry, and losing hope or a sense of meaning
  • Developing overly rigid, strict boundaries
  • Feeling heightened protectiveness as a result of a decreased sense of the safety of loved ones
  • Avoiding social contact

It is recommended that all health care providers take steps toward self-care and lifestyle balance. Self-care can mean different things for different people; it is being okay with taking time and space for you, without the feeling of guilt. In order to take care of others and take on their burdens and stresses, it’s important to keep your mind at ease and do activities that help you recharge. Here are a few examples:

Sensory – Focus on sensations around you. This can help you focus on the present moment to help decrease worries and stress.

  • Get a massage
  • Burn a scented candle
  • Sit/Lay outside and follow moving clouds

Pleasure – Take care of you by engaging in a pleasurable activity that you enjoy.

  • Start a new craft or DIY project
  • Garden
  • Write in a journal

Mental ­– Check off a task you’ve been avoiding or challenge your brain.

  • Clean out or organize a junk drawer
  • Make a weekly to-do list
  • Do a word search or crossword puzzle

Emotional – Accept your feelings during a time of stress. Don’t focus on labeling your feelings as good or bad; try writing them down instead.

  • Try laughter yoga
  • Make a list of things you’re grateful for
  • Listen to uplifting, positive music

Physical – Coping with stress by engaging your body can be satisfying and fun.

  • Go for a walk or run in the park
  • Stretch first thing in the morning
  • Take a nap – don’t skip sleep to get things done

Social – Connecting with friends and family is an important part of self-care. Whether it’s in person or online, human connection is something we all need and helps to lessen the feeling of isolation.

  • Call or write a friend
  • Go see a movie with a friend or family member
  • Remember that others go through similar experiences and difficulties

If you find yourself experiencing high levels of stress or a feeling of burnout, please reach out to your employer’s Human Resources department to discuss your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Often times, an EAP can provide free or low-cost counseling services via phone or in person. An EAP may also offer workshops or online courses about living a healthy, more balanced life. If an EAP is not available, contact your insurance provider directly about other covered services that may be available.

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