12 July 2023

Vicarious trauma

This article is part 2 of a series on trauma written by the Fortem clinical team. To read part 1, click here.

First responders experience high rates of trauma exposure. But trauma is not always directly experienced, first responders often witness or hear about trauma experienced by members of the community or colleagues.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is exposure to trauma experienced by others.

Examples of vicarious trauma include:

  • Witnessing the impact of violence or accidents on members of the public 
  • Exposure to the anguish and grief of family members 
  • Radio operators’ exposure to details of critical events  
  • Peer support workers’ exposure to stories when debriefing colleagues 

The impact of such events is referred to as vicarious traumatisation or secondary traumatic stress. It can produce intense feelings of distress and concern for the physical suffering and emotional pain of others and can lead to mental health outcomes like anxiety, depression and PTSD.

What does vicarious traumatisation feel like?

Vicarious trauma can have many of the same impacts as direct trauma exposure. It can activate the body’s survival response creating feelings of tension and anxiety, make us feel emotionally raw with intense feelings of helplessness, sadness or anger, leave us with recurrent images and negative thoughts, and increase our sensitivity to risks, making us want to withdraw or become overprotective of others.

Through sustained or repeated exposure, secondary traumatic stress can lead to emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue and burnout.

Why can vicarious trauma be so impactful?

In short; because we’re human.

We are biologically wired to experience another person’s distress in our own bodies. Studies show activation of the same emotional and physiological pain circuitry when witnessing distress in another. It is often our best qualities, our capacity for caring and empathy, that allows us to be affected by the suffering of others.

This is not an argument for becoming heartless and like a robot, just a reminder that first responder agencies need to include awareness of vicarious trauma as one of the risks to team safety that need to be managed.

Managing vicarious trauma

While vicarious trauma is a very real hazard in the first responder work space, it can be managed. As with many things trauma related, often the most protective strategies involve maintaining a healthy balance in your life. Protect your downtime and invest in things that recharge you, especially social connection and maintain a healthy dose of the good stuff helps to counterbalance the trauma exposure inherent in first responder work.

For more information and support reach out to your agency’s wellbeing team or contact a Fortem psychologist.

What’s next?

Next week we will be exploring the topic of cumulative trauma.

Article written by Dominic Hilbrink, Senior Clinician at Fortem Australia.