Finding the Line: Vicarious Trauma and Traumatization
Did we know that working in certain employment fields, including the legal profession, poses the threat for experiencing vicarious or secondary trauma? Do we know what that is and to protect against its negative impact? Does stigma cloud our understanding? Maybe, maybe not; but better to know and safeguard.
You may frequently hear descriptions of traumatic events through interviews and depositions or in audio, video, or written accounts of traumatic events. The events could be criminal, medical, tortious, interpersonal, psychological, even financial. The material is intense and, in order to zealously represent your client, you have to be intimately familiar with it. Over time or even in a single instance, this exposure may impact your mental health status.
Vicarious or Secondary trauma occurs when a person is exposed to the trauma of others. It’s important to recognize that exposure to this information can and does impact professionals, and it’s important to recognize when this is happening and take steps to address and mitigate it.
Sometimes individuals may experience a neutral impact of traumatic material. This doesn’t mean that you don’t care or are heartless. It may indicate that your current coping skills, supports, boundaries, and resilience are doing a good job of helping you to manage the effects of the traumatic material. Continue to use these qualities, attitudes, supports, and activities to keep you in a healthy place.
There can even be a positive reaction to vicarious trauma exposure known as vicarious resilience. While this sounds implausible at first, let me explain. Most of us do have a shift in our thinking when we are exposed to others’ trauma. Some of us have negative reactions, but some of us have positive responses. We can experience Compassion Satisfaction, when we can get inspiration from others’ experiences and have renewed appreciation for our work and for the positive situations and circumstances in our own lives. The people around us become more important to us and we may notice and engage with the positives more. These positive experiences help to insulate us from the negative effects of others’ trauma.
Vicarious traumatization occurs when one has a negative reaction to secondary trauma exposure. It includes a range of psychosocial symptoms like disruptions in thinking and changes in beliefs about one’s sense of self, one’s safety in the world, and the goodness and trustworthiness of others; as well as shifts in spiritual beliefs. Individuals may also exhibit symptoms that can have detrimental effects, in personal and professional spheres.
When a person is experiencing vicarious traumatization, he or she may have increased aggression and irritability, feel numb or shut down, be more susceptible to common illnesses, experience a loss of meaning, or loss of sense of safety. They may experience interpersonal problems with coworkers, partners, or clients, or may withdraw from others. They may neglect activities that used to be enjoyable and meaningful. They may turn to addictive or reckless behaviors. Additionally, working in a court room where upsetting testimony is given or working in an office with others who are troubled by secondary trauma can cause traumatization. Judges and lawyers, please also check in on your clerks, bailiffs, assistants, and support staff because they could be impacted.
Anyone who works with people who have experienced trauma is at risk for vicarious traumatization but there are some factors that could predispose traumatization. People who have prior experiences with their own trauma may be more susceptible. People who isolate and who lack a good support network may also be more impacted by traumatic material. Having difficulty understanding or expressing feelings may also be a risk factor. Being new at your job, not having training about how to manage traumatic information, or being repeatedly exposed to trauma with little variation in duties can also contribute to traumatization.
There are many practices a person can incorporate into their lives to manage the effects of others’ trauma. First, be mindful of your own feelings and reactions. Acknowledge it if you have difficulty coping with a situation. Sometimes particular traumas can resonate with us when we did not expect them to do so and can manifest in ways we didn’t expect. Find someone to talk with. Also, set boundaries about work hours and stick to them. During the pandemic a lot of us have been working from home and lines between work and home lives have been blurred. Setting specific times for work helps to mitigate the effects of trauma. Also, use your vacation days. Supervisors can be helpful in reinforcing self-care practices and in setting the overall tone for self-care in general.
Also, if you have to examine potentially upsetting and traumatic evidence, consider going to your actual office to do so, if this is safe now or allowed by your company. This sets an additional boundary between you and the information and it also keeps the trauma out of your home, which is supposed to be your refuge. Also, if others within your office or organization need to examine this evidence, consider doing so together so neither of you feel alone in approaching it. Continue to engage in the meaningful activities in your life. Continue to be active, artistic, practice your faith, connect with friends, and notice the things in your life that are good.
If you notice that a colleague, coworker, or employee is having difficulty managing the effects of others’ trauma, reach out to them 1:1 and offer them supports. VJLAP is here to help you find healthy ways to support your colleague, and most organizations have access to employee assistance programs and wellness benefits. Encourage them to connect with their family, friends, and meaningful activities. You can help the person to be mindful of and develop a routine to leave work at work and transition to non-working hours and mindset. If you recognize yourself in this article in the negative ways you have been managing trauma, please reach out. Sometimes even when we are managing well, it can help to debrief after exposure to stories that are particularly upsetting or stressful. Each of us is unique and we can be triggered by different things at different times in our lives. VJLAP services are always 100% confidential and free of charge and we are here to help you.
** The contents of this post are not intended for the purpose of diagnostic or medical/psychological care. Consultation with a medical or mental health professional is recommended if you are concerned about your well-being.
- ABA- https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/child_law_practice/vol-34/september-2015/understanding-secondary-trauma–a-guide-for-lawyers-working-with/
- International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies- https://istss.org/clinical-resources/treating-trauma/vicarious-trauma-toolkit
- Office for Victims of Crime – https://ovc.ojp.gov/program/vtt/what-is-vicarious-trauma