Many career paths come with inherent risks, but we rarely think of counseling and other helping professions in this way.
Firefighters know they will run into a fire; soldiers know they will be in battle; veterinarians even know they will probably get bitten by a hurting dog at some point, and the list goes on.
However, many in the helping professions also could face injury from an emotional perspective.
For those who walk alongside people who are hurting, it means seeing their suffering, hearing their stories and holding their pain — and harm can come from that.
The harm, known as vicarious trauma, also can affect friends and family of the hurting person.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an event, a series of events or a set of circumstances experienced or perceived by an individual as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening.
Trauma events can range from one-time incidences to chronic or generational experiences.
Typically, traumatic events are unexpected, have the capacity for harm and overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.
Examples of traumatic events include natural disaster, sexual assault, physical violence, unexpected loss of a loved one and military combat.
Common responses to trauma include nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks, avoidance, intense emotions and loss of acquired communication skills.
Vicarious trauma is a result of continual exposure to victims of trauma or being indirectly exposed to a traumatic event such as the life of another person being threatened or witnessing a death.
According to the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, vicarious trauma can occur from listening to an individual recount his or her stories of victimization, reading case files, watching testimony videos or prolonged exposure to media recounting traumatic events.
Professionals, ministers and volunteers who work with and assist people who have been traumatized can experience vicarious trauma.
Those in caring professions are most at risk, such as medical professionals; first responders such as police, EMS and firefighters; counselors and social workers; attorneys; journalists; and clergy.
Knowing the symptoms
How would a person know if he or she is experiencing vicarious trauma?
According to psychologists, vicarious trauma impacts the whole person — physically, cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally. Symptoms include sadness, anger, anxiousness and numbness. A person can become cynical in his or her thoughts and develop a jaded view of the world. He or she also might over-worry about the person(s) affected and no longer find purpose in his or her job.
Vicarious trauma can present itself physically such as through headaches, stomachaches and overall fatigue. Isolation, poor coping mechanisms such as alcohol or substance abuse, risky behaviors and change in eating/sleeping patterns also can occur.
If the symptoms of vicarious trauma are evident, what action should a person take? The Office for Victims of Crime offers these practical suggestions:
- Maintain daily life routines.
- Stay connected with family and friends.
- Discuss the demands of your job with your supervisor.
- Be intentional about doing something creative — reading, writing, exercise, prayer.
- Seek professional help from a therapist who is trauma informed.
The most important thing to remember no matter the situation is to not suffer alone.
It is not a sign of weakness for professionals, family, friends or ministers to need the assistance of another professional to learn strategies for coping and ongoing self-care. You cannot give what you do not have. You cannot pour yourself out and be present for those in need if you are experiencing vicarious trauma.
It is OK for the helpers to ask for help so they can be mentally and emotionally available to provide victims the best help possible.
Are you venting or trauma dumping?
When considering the impact of hearing trauma stories, it is important for the listener of those stories, especially volunteers or lay helpers, to know the difference between “trauma dumping” and true processing of the event. One leads to spiraling in the trauma, while the other can lead to wholeness and healing.
Trauma dumping occurs when serious information is “shared without permission, in an inappropriate place and time and to someone who may not have had the capacity to take in this information.”
While there are benefits to venting, there are no benefits to trauma dumping.
In trauma dumping, the person oversharing doesn’t take responsibility or show signs of self-reflection.
Trauma dumping is delivered on the unsuspecting and typically is motivated by a need to generate sympathy and attention rather than the healthy option of processing emotions.
Research shows that without some form of processing, the trauma dump doesn’t help release anything and can even make it worse.
Trauma dumping negatively impacts the person who is sharing as well as the person who is listening.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Kelly Arant, M.Ed., NCC, LPC, registered play therapist, Pathways Professional Counseling at the request of TAB Media Group, which publishes The Baptist Paper and The Alabama Baptist. Find additional resources on topics such as trauma, anxiety, depression and more at pathwaysprofessional.org/