Few people would question the psychological impact of being the victim of assault, experiencing a life changing accident or losing a loved one. As a society, we are improving at recognising the effect these (and other) events can have on our ongoing mental and emotional wellbeing. What many seem to be unaware of, however, is that the impact on those that witness a trauma can be just as devastating.
People who witness trauma can also experience a profound psychological reaction.
They may experience:
- PTSD like symptoms such as: intrusive re-experiencing of the event; avoidance of triggers and emotion; increased physical arousal; increased negativity
- Heightened anxiety
- Be mistrusting and suspicious
- View the world as unsafe
- Have greater distance within relationships
- Existential questioning
- Physical and psychological exhaustion
- Emotional distress
- For some, this can lead to Post Traumatic Stress.
Individuals and Professionals at risk of VT and PTS
- Close family/personal relationships with an individual who experienced a significant trauma,
- Ambulance Workers,
- Police Officers,
- Medical practitioners.
Common risk factors:
- Culture – Cultural differences in VT have been observed,
- Gender – Reported more in women,
- Personal trauma history,
- Personal stress.
To minimise risks, research supports a balanced professional/personal life and social support. Therefor, protective factors which may offset the effect of VT are believed to include spirituality, use of humour and developing realistic optimism.
For some, recovery from vicarious trauma may lead to an experience known as ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ (PTG). This is the positive accommodation of traumatic events leading to improved coping skills. PTG can lead to increased compassion, self-awareness, professional skills, social activism and better parenting.
In addition to individual factors that can aid recovery, organisations with employees at risk of VT should also take conscious steps to prevent and manage this risk. Research indicates that organisations should:
Steps to prevent and manage risk
- Acknowledge the reality of VT,
- Support the development of “personal prevention and management”,
- Encourage a respectful culture,
- Encourage trauma responders,
- Be tolerant of VT experiences,
- Promote open and healthy discussion of VT.
By Barry Mannolini-Winwood & Tasha Broomhall
Baum, N., Rahav, G., & Sharon, M. (2014). Heightened susceptibility to secondary traumatization: A meta-analysis of gender differences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(2), 111–122.
Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C. C. (2014). A metaanalysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological Services, 11(1), 75–86.
Cohen, K., & Collens, P. (2013). The impact of trauma work on trauma workers: A metasynthesis on vicarious trauma and vicarious posttraumatic growth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(6), 570–580.
Hensel, J. M., Ruiz, C., Finney, C., & Dewa, C. S. (2015). Meta‐Analysis of Risk Factors for Secondary Traumatic Stress in Therapeutic Work With Trauma Victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28(2), 83–91.