Her Brain Chose for Her
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Her Brain Chose for Her

Chapter 9
Vicarious Trauma

“…trauma brings both strengths and problems. Common, albeit not invariable, strengths include the development of profound survival skills, an enhanced ability to understand other traumatized and oppressed individuals and groups, a passion for justice, a desire for a different kind of society, a certain critical realism, and what is particularly significant, a less distorted view of the world.”
(Burstow, 2003)

brains divider

Service and care professionals who work with trauma survivors may find their own well-being negatively impacted by the intensity of their work. When this happens, we say the professional is experiencing vicarious or secondary trauma. Vicarious or secondary trauma can have significant impact on a service provider, affecting their sense of identity, relationship with others, their work, and their perspective on trauma, core beliefs and the world in general. Symptoms of vicarious trauma might include: intrusive imagery, nightmares, fear for one’s personal safety, difficulty listening, irritability, emotional and physical depletion or numbing, and hopelessness. In the same way that trauma-informed approaches for clients promote the de-individualization of responses to trauma, research suggests that vicarious trauma is best addressed structurally rather than individually, to mitigate traumatic exposure to any one worker by effectively distributing workload (Bober & Regehr, 2006).

Workers experiencing compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or moral stress may develop symptoms after just one case, with a rapid onset of symptoms, however they may desire to continue to help trauma survivors. (Figley & Figley, 2007). Tools which help to distinguish between and measure compassion fatigue, include the Professional Quality of Life Scale: Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue Subscales (ProQOL).

Risk factors for vicarious trauma include work overload, lack of reward or acknowledgement for work, lack of peer support, and insufficient opportunity to debrief. Employers can help to prevent vicarious trauma by recognizing and respecting workers, encouraging open communication, ensuring adequate supervision is available, and providing employees with various types of support (Lumor, 2017).

Ultimately, long term work with trauma survivors changes the way we view ourselves, and the world. We may feel less safe in society as a result of the awareness of violence (both individual and systemic), and frustration, anger and disbelief at the responses or lack of responses from services and systems. Advocacy for systemic change can be an important component for any professional who works with women who have experienced violence.

Warning Signs of Vicarious Trauma/Compassion Fatigue/Burnout/Moral Stress

Steps towards healing and balance for service providers of trauma survivors

Putting Your Own Mask on First

person on airplane putting on oxygen mask

Professionals who work with survivors of trauma are often reminded to “put their own oxygen mask on first” which can also be a useful analogy for promoting self-care and self-prioritization with women who have experienced trauma and may have been socialized, pressured, or forced to deprioritize their needs over children, family members and partners. This analogy refers to the safety instructions provided by flight attendants during air travel: if you have a dependent with you, during an emergency, ensure you put your own oxygen mask on first as this will allow you to stay conscious and help those around you. Ultimately, we can not help others without first prioritizing ourselves and our short- and long-term wellbeing. This analogy is also helpful in promoting self-care and preventing caregiver burnout for those who may be in a caregiving role to an older woman with complex needs.


Food for Thought:

  • How has your work with trauma survivors changed the way youview the world?
  • What have you found helpful in tracking and addressing the impactsof trauma work within your field?
  • What are the barriers to accessing support and help as aprofessional?

Click here to access and fill out the "Tree Tracker Worksheet" which can be used with either clients or service providers to help track, visualize, and reflect on root causes and signs of impact related to experiences of primary and secondary trauma.

When you have filled out the tool, you can save it and/or print it for your own reference. No information you enter into the tool will be saved/recorded internally by this application.