Do you work in a helping profession or vocation and offer assistance to people who are often distressed or talk about traumatic experiences? Maybe you work in health care, social services, as a police officer, firefighter, teacher, attorney, clergy, national or international emergency support or volunteer? Keep reading to learn about the effects of vicarious trauma, stress and burnout on your own wellbeing.
What Is Vicarious Trauma? Vicarious trauma is the experience of trauma symptoms that can result from being repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma and their experiences of traumatic events. A person’s world view and belief systems can be significantly changed as a result of hearing those stories. Vicarious trauma is cumulative, building up over time.
What is Secondary Traumatic Stress? It’s the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms can mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is Burnout? Burnout is the prolonged physical and psychological exhaustion caused by working hard for long periods of time. It does not include traumatic elements or PTSD-like symptoms.
What We Know
It is unknown from a statistical point of view how many people working in helping professions are suffering from negative effects from their roles, but national reports suggest that 57–75% of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event or experience vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic response or burn out at some point in their lives.
Frontline responders, and anyone else working or helping these individuals can be exposed to secondary traumatic stress and ultimately impact their own mental health and well-being. It can be difficult to generalise as each individual professional helper is exposed to and processes the secondary stress on an individual level.
So, how do I know if I’m struggling with vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress?
- Experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness about patient’s victimisation
- Becoming overly involved emotionally with the patient
- Experiencing bystander guilt, shame, feelings of self-doubt
- Being preoccupied with thoughts of patients outside of the work situation
- Over identification with the patient (having horror and rescue fantasies)
- Loss of hope, pessimism, cynicism
- Distancing, numbing, detachment, cutting patients off, staying busy. Avoiding listening to client’s story of traumatic experiences
- Difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries with the client, such as overextending self (trying to do more than is in the role to help the patient).
How do I know if I’m struggling with burnout?
- Overworking and not giving time to yourself to “switch off” from work
- Being overworked, compromised or experiencing stress
- Experiencing relationship issues
- Insufficient sleep or insomnia
- Ignoring your health and fitness
- Physical challenges, increased susceptibility to illness or pain
- Experiencing fatigue at work or at home
- Stress, overwhelm or feeling undervalued at work
What can I do to support myself?
Prevention and intervention to support yourself is very important. Reach out to a trustworthy colleague, supervisor or workplace HR if you feel like you are at risk or are experiencing any of the symptoms. Many workplaces have programs or policies already in place, so check in with your supervisor to see what is available. It is important to acknowledge that these professions can be extremely difficult for the professional and that there is no shame in doing all we can in contributing to our own personal mental, physical and emotional health. Taking time off or setting a specific time for yourself is vital. Putting yourself first before your clients and workload, prioritising your diet, fitness and sleep and spending time with our friends and family all contribute to a healthy work/life balance. Although this is easier said than done remember, you are human and its okay to take a break, rest and seek professional counselling or other support for your own health.
If you’re feeling the effects outlined above from working, feel free to contact us to inquire about speaking to someone about it here.
AIHW. (n.d.). Https://Www.Aihw.Gov.Au/Reports/Australias-Health/Stress-and-Trauma. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/stress-and-traumaBMA UK. (n.d.). BMA UK. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/your-wellbeing/vicarious-trauma/vicarious-trauma-signs-and-strategies-for-coping
Vicarious trauma & burnout. (n.d.). The Lookout. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.thelookout.org.au/family-violence-workers/self-care-family-violence-workers/vicarious-trauma-burnout