Vicarious Trauma

Are you experiencing a loss of joy or enthusiasm in your work? Feeling burned out, irritable, numb? For clinicians and other helping professionals, the issue is often much more complicated than simply being tired or overworked. The very thing that brings professional fulfillment and makes us good at our jobs can be the thing that ultimately comes at a significant cost: empathy and caring for and about others. Professionals in the fields of health care, protective services, mental health, crisis intervention, faith institutions, the legal arena, and first responders are at high risk for developing Compassion Fatigue (CF) and Vicarious Trauma (VT).

Often used interchangeably, the terms Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma are slightly different.  Compassion Fatigue (Figley, 1982) refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and feel regenerated. The term Vicarious Trauma (Perlman & Saakvitne, 1985), however, describes a shift in perceptions and world view that occurs in helping professionals when they work with clients who have experienced trauma.  While burn-out can be an issue for some who experience low job satisfaction, it is not the same thing as CF and VT.

When helping professionals work with traumatized clients, they may begin to experience symptoms that mirror those of the clients they are serving, such as PTSD and other physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms.

Physical symptoms of CF and VT can include physical exhaustion and fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, tension, frequent illness, difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping, loss of interest in sex and/or withdrawal from family and friends.

Emotional symptoms of CF and VT can include reduced empathy, lowered patience, increased anger, irritability, cynicism or resentment, and changes in the ability to relate with compassion to clients and loved ones.  Other signs can include increased fear, hypervigilance (being on guard and anxious), doubt in one’s skill and competence as a professional helper, feeling helpless towards clients, lowered hope for the future, depression and even suicidal thoughts.  Additionally, difficulty trusting people or viewing the world as unsafe as a result of hearing and witnessing clients’ experiences of trauma as well as hypersensitivity or numbness to emotionally charged material can all occur.

Behaviorally, CF and VT may manifest as isolation, lowered pleasure in activities you typically enjoy, lowered motivation, difficulty making simple decisions or clinical decisions on behalf of clients, compromised care towards clients, missing work or avoiding clients, and ultimately even leaving the field.

Working with a therapist can help an individual or organization identify and respond to CF and VT, to restore a sense of hope, invigoration and fulfillment.  We work with clients to develop specific self-care skills based upon key core elements in building and maintaining resiliency.  Sessions focus on work-life balance, setting and maintaining boundaries, increasing self-awareness and insight, and developing personal strategies for taking care of one of your most important tools…yourself.