On Vicarious Trauma

What is Trauma?
Trauma is an experience where death, abuse, or serious injury is a very real threat. This can include your own direct experiences, witnessed events, or situations faced by someone you care about.

Vicarious Trauma
Vicarious trauma is a process of change over time that results from witnessing, identifying with, or hearing about other people’s suffering and loss. If you are regularly hearing about another person’s trauma, then you are at risk of developing vicarious trauma symptoms. When you identify with the pain of people who have endured terrible things, you bring their grief, fear, anger, and despair into your own awareness and experience. Your commitment, care, and sense of responsibility can contribute to feeling burdened, overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, and perhaps hopeless. Vicarious trauma, like experiencing trauma directly, can deeply impact the way you see the world and your deepest sense of meaning and hope.

Trauma in the Black Community
This familiar pain is a symptom of Black people’s shared post-traumatic stress disorder—a uniquely American epidemic, 400 years in the making. And as viral police killings, trials, and social media force Black Americans to repeatedly endure secondary trauma—or the emotional stress that results from witnessing the trauma of others—and also the hidden cost: the spread of a Black American stress disorder that is often undiagnosed, untreated, and, in the age of social media, ubiquitously spread. Listening to traumatic material can also trigger memories of personal previous traumas. Vicarious or secondary trauma is similar to direct trauma. It carries many of the same symptoms.

Common Reactions to Vicarious Trauma:

  • PHYSICAL: Feeling on edge, difficulty sleeping, feeling tired, getting sick
  • EMOTIONAL: Feeling sad or anxious, angry, irritable, lonely or unsupported, unsafe, hypervigilant
  • COGNITIVE: Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, repetitive thoughts, memory problems, disturbing imagery, nightmares, “zoning out”
  • BEHAVIORAL: Social withdrawal, substance abuse, changes in eating patterns, disturbed sleep, overprotectiveness, spending too much time scrolling through social media, canceling and avoiding activities
  • RELATIONAL: Expecting the worst of others, becoming judgmental, relationship problems, loss of friends, feelings of isolation
  • SPIRITUAL: Cynicism, discouragement, loss of faith, low motivation

How to Help Address Vicarious Trauma:

  • PHYSICAL & BEHAVIORAL: Exercise, sleep 8 hours, eat regular healthy snacks and meals, take necessary medications, limit alcohol, drugs, and smoking, drink water, get fresh air and spend time outdoors, shower to “wash the day away,” follow a routine, balance priorities
  • EMOTIONAL & RELATIONAL: Seek support, journal, paint, laugh, watch movies, avoid news/violent TV shows, read books, listen to music
  • COGNITIVE: Focus on positive experiences, affirm your strengths through self statements, do breathing and visualization exercises, remind yourself that this is temporary, stay in the present moment
  • SPIRITUAL: Participate in a community that you value, pray/meditate/do readings, connect to the outdoors, sing, listen to music, personal prayer

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