Research Reveals Surprisingly Broad Impact of Shared Experience as It Relates to Trauma
Most people have heard the term vicarious trauma, relating to a concept that is often defined broadly in describing secondary trauma experienced by people who work with traumatized individuals. Yet many people who do not work within that population may nonetheless experience a disquieting sense of unease, anxiety, or even physical symptoms that do not appear to be directly tied to present life circumstances. But are they? And without any training or experience, how do we cope?
Various Forms of Vicarious Trauma
Dana C. Branson (from 2019) notes that vicarious trauma (VT) is often used to refer to the "unique, negative, and accumulative changes" that may impact clinicians engaged in empathetic client relationships.
Branson notes that within this context, characteristics and physical symptoms may include unwelcome thoughts or imagery induced by client disclosures, nightmares, absenteeism, social isolation, negative coping skills, hyperarousal to safety concerns, avoidance of physical intimacy, and many others.
Within some professions, vicarious trauma might be more pronounced, such as within the law enforcement or medical community, where employees are frequently exposed to human suffering.
Yet research reveals that vicarious trauma actually impacts a much broader community of individuals.
Sean Hallinan et al. (also from 2019), in a piece exploring vicarious trauma within organizations, adopts a working definition of vicarious trauma (VT) as "the exposure, by empathic connection, to the traumatic experiences of others."
They note that employees of agencies that provide first responder services, such as emergency services like fire and law enforcement, as well as victim assistance, have a high risk for vicarious trauma, which they acknowledge can lead to consequences such as substance use, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In terms of statistics, Hallinan et al. note that among a sample of police officers, 98% reported exposure to a dead body, which was described as the most common type of event, followed by accidentally making a mistake that harms a bystander (97.7%). They note that these events were followed closely statistically by viewing an adult who had been badly beaten (95%), or a decaying corpse (91%).
They note that employees involved in rendering emergency medical services had similarly been exposed to death or serious bodily injury.
Yet one does not have to wear a badge, stethoscope, or fire hat to be exposed to situations that create vicarious trauma. The key, is learning how to cope.
Emotional Equipping and Support
Grace Maguire and Mitchell K. Byrne, in a study examining vicarious trauma in lawyers and mental health professionals (from 2017), note that exposure to traumatic events affects different professionals differently, according to the background and training within their field of discipline.
Of particular significance, they recognize that exposure to trauma may be better managed by mental health professionals, who may have had trauma-specific training, and who have access to informed peer support.
Even within the medical profession, there are differences in trauma readiness.
Zhenyu Li et al. (in 2020) studying Covid-19 related trauma, found front-line-nurses better equipped to handle trauma than non-front-line nurses, by virtue of their superior knowledge, training, and experience.
The bottom line is that vicarious trauma is more widespread among a broader field of occupations than some people realize, but it is also, at least to some extent and with proper training and peer support, both treatable and preventable.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance and style. Her over 4,500 media appearances include these major news outlets: CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN, FOX Business Network and weekly appearances on Newsmax. She is author of ''Red Flags'' (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of The New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House, revision). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, participates as a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, and plays the electric violin professionally with a rock band. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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