What is Vicarious Trauma?

What is Vicarious Trauma?

For me, it was the nightmares. When I first noticed how my nightmares focused on the people at work, or what those people had been through, I knew something was wrong.  

The world is full of upsetting or confusing events. No matter where you turn, the news, social media, we are surrounded by the awareness that this world is not a safe place. Not all of us directly experience trauma; but knowing someone who has experienced something traumatic can shake us to our core. It can leave us feeling overwhelmed, scared, on edge, or even angry. This is what happens when we experience vicarious trauma. 

There is one very important distinction to make. Vicarious trauma is often confused with “burnout”, which can create even more confusion around a very confusing experience. To learn more about what burnout looks like, read this blog.

Vicarious trauma can happen to anyone, but it is most common in first responders, military, and other helping professionals. This struggle often occurs to those who care for the people they help. These folks have huge hearts, and you are probably one of those folks if you are reading this. 

You chose your field of work because you want to make the world a better place, to leave it better than when you entered it. But to do it, you have been called to serve in some of the darkest places in our culture. And that takes a toll on you.

Here is what vicarious trauma looks like:

You often find yourself thinking about one of the people you have helped.

You are easily startled by unexpected sounds. 

You struggle with leaving work at work. 

You are feeling the weight of the trauma experienced by the people you have helped. 

You feel “on edge” about things that didn’t bother you before. 

You avoid things or places because of the trauma experienced by others. 

You can’t seem to stop thinking about what has happened to the people you have helped. 

You find it hard focusing on important things at work. 


Here is the thing: this happens to A LOT of people. It happens so often, that they have created a name for it and have conducted significant amounts of research to better understand how it affects people. 

I see this happen a lot for helpers, whether they are nurses, doctors, first responders, military service members, veterans, you name it! They are working so hard to make the world a better place, and that takes a lot of work. 


Vicarious trauma does NOT mean you are broken or in the wrong line of work.

Counseling can help those with vicarious trauma learn how to cope with it when it happens. Counseling can also help you find out what your red flags are, the warning signs when you are at your limits with the darkness of this world, which can help you in the future. 

In my office, I work with clients on understanding how they experience vicarious trauma in order to decrease the impact it has on them. We also want to decrease the chances of it happening again in the future. I want you to find yourself in counseling, find the part of you that loves to help others, that hopes for a better world, so that you can help others without losing yourself in the process. 

There is also an assessment that you can take to learn if you are experiencing signs of vicarious trauma, burnout, or compassion fatigue. It is called the Professional Quality of Life assessment, which I give to all of my clients in the helping professions.


When I finally figured out that I was struggling with vicarious trauma, I was able to find the help that I needed to work through it. And you can, too. Professional help can support you in learning how to respond to and prevent the negative effects of vicarious trauma. 


Take care, friends!

Alisha Sweyd, LMFT



Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash