Signs of Vicarious Trauma

When we are experiencing overwhelming volumes of information—especially information that holds an emotional charge—our bodies, minds and spirit adapt to help us cope. At times, the way we cope may help in the moment but may have longer term negative results. For example, our bodies may give us an extra push of adrenaline to make it through a challenging time period. However the moment we go on vacation, we immediately get sick for the first three days. The adrenaline push that was needed in the moment eventually “catches up” with us and we feel the full effects of pushing ourselves beyond a healthy limit.

The following list is not meant to be an exhaustive catalog of symptoms, but rather information that may spark your own reflections on how your work may affect you in both personal and professional situations. We encourage you to read this list with no judgments attached to the information. We are all coping to the best of our ability. Understanding the costs associated with some coping strategies help us grow closer to solutions. If you notice any of your own experiences in the following list, please remember that solutions exist and there are ways engage in your work not only without harm to self or others, but in a way that actually amplifies our sense of resiliency and hope that are also associated with doing work in the field of trauma.

Exhaustion and physical ailments: 

  • Constantly feeling tired, even after having time to rest
  • Physical tension in the body when its not needed, i.e., sitting at your desk or on your commute home.
  • Physical pain throughout the day such as headaches, back pain and wrist pain that you “push through”
  • Difficulty falling asleep or excessive sleeping
  • Falling sick the moment you are able to rest, such as on a vacation

Emotional shifts:

  • Hypersensitivity to emotionally charged material
  • Feeling disconnected from your emotions and / or your body
  • Guilt for having more resources/opportunities than those you serve 
  • Feeling like no matter how much you give, it will never be enough
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless toward the future
  • Increased levels of anger, irritability, resentment or cynicism 

Thought patterns:

  • Difficulty in seeing multiple perspectives or new solutions
  • Jumping to conclusions, rigid thinking, or difficulty being thoughtful and deliberate 
  • Questioning, “Is any of this effective? Am I making any difference?”
  • Minimizing the suffering of others in comparison to the most severe incidents or situations 
  • Intrusive thoughts and imagery related to the traumatic material you have heard / seen

Behavioral shifts:

  • Absenteeism and attrition
  • Avoidance of work, relationships, responsibilities
  • Dread of activities that used to be positive or neutral
  • Using behaviors to escape (eating, alcohol/drugs, caffeine, TV, shopping, work)

Relationship changes:

  • No separation of personal and professional time, being the helper in every relationship
  • Viewing other people as less important who are not involved in your same field
  • Difficulty relating to other peoples day to day experiences without comparing them to those your serve or yourself
  • Absence of a personal life that is not connected to your work
  • Seeing danger everywhere and hypervigilance to the safety of those you care about
  • Sense of persecution or martyrdom, holding external forces responsible for personal feelings and struggles
  • Isolated self completely from others or only interacting with people who are in your same field or can relate to your experiences

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