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SEXUAL VIOLENCE: UNDERSTANDING VICARIOUS TRAUMA

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One of the arguments against survivors of trauma is that they have too much baggage. People would often warn their families and friends against any kind of close or romantic relationship with survivors because they believe that the survivor would inflict their wound on the individual and s/he would bear the brunt of another person’s crime; the word here is crime. Well, indeed they should, they are looking out for their own and I would like to think that it is all coming from a good place. However, this kind of mentality is the very reason victims of sexual violence remain silent about their experience, it comes from ignorance, it encourages stigma, breeds shame, extends their suffering, and stops them from asking for help.

There are resources for friends, intimate partners and families of survivors. Oftentimes, long term effects of sexual violence persist because of inability to seek immediate help at the time of the violence, or lack of support when help is sought. The need to seek help and offer support to victims of sexual violence cannot be overemphasized, we need to overcome the desensitization that shields us from paying attention to these issues and keeps us from doing something about it. Nobody who is a victim of sexual violence ever asked for it, or deserved it. For help to be available to survivors of sexual violence, there is need for registered counselors and therapists in every hospital in the country and it should be affordable too. When ready help is available, victims would not have the problems a lot of them have today.

Vicarious trauma originally centers on counselors, therapists, and humanitarian workers. The workers who often assist people who have been victimized not only sexually, but devastation from conflict and natural disasters. However, vicarious trauma is not only limited to these workers, it can also happen to anybody who is in continuous close contact with victims of trauma and is a witness to suffering depending on where the survivor is in the healing process. As a result of close contact with victims of trauma, these individuals are likely to experience lasting psychological and spiritual changes in the way that they see themselves and the world. Some of these changes can be positive – they often talk about how witnessing (and sometimes sharing in) the sufferings of people they are there to help has led to personal changes they appreciate – such as more compassion and gratitude, and a deeper understanding of what they value in their own lives and why.

However, some of the changes that can come from experiencing and bearing witness to suffering can be more problematic, leaving potentially permanent scars.

Vicarious trauma (VT) is the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible to help them.

Over time this process can lead to changes in psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being. It is important to understand the process of vicarious trauma, because it will almost certainly impact you in some way.

  • Vicarious trauma is a process that unfolds over time. It is not just your responses to one person, one story, or one situation. It is the cumulative effect of contact with survivors of violence or disaster or people who are struggling.
  • Vicarious trauma happens because you care – because you empathize with people who are hurting. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person, to understand and feel another person’s pain and joy.
  • Vicarious trauma happens because you feel committed or responsible to help and at times, you are unable to fulfill that commitment. It can lead to very high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations of yourself and others, and for the results you want to see.Your sense of commitment and responsibility can eventually contribute to you feeling burdened, overwhelmed, and hopeless in the face of great need and suffering. It can also lead you to extend yourself beyond what is reasonable for your own well-being or the best long-term interests of beneficiaries.
  • A key component of vicarious trauma is changes in spirituality, which can deeply impact the way you see the world and your deepest sense of meaning and hope.

Who may be most at risk for Vicarious Trauma?

  • VT may be more problematic for people who tend to avoid problems or difficult feelings, blame others for their difficulties, or withdraw from others when things get hard.
  • Those who have experienced trauma themselves may identify more closely with particular types of pain or loss others have experienced, and may be more vulnerable to experiencing vicarious trauma.
  • Added stress in other areas of life can make you more vulnerable to vicarious trauma.
  • A lack of connection with a source of meaning, purpose, and hope is a risk factor for developing more problematic vicarious trauma.
  • Lack of good social support— not having people to talk to who care about you and your welfare—puts you at increased risk for vicarious trauma.
  • Unsustainable professional and work-life boundaries and unrealistic ideals and expectations about work can contribute to more problematic vicarious trauma.
  • Not understanding cross-cultural differences in expressing distress and extending and receiving assistance can contribute to an increased risk of vicarious trauma.
  • As a profession, workers who engage closely with survivors are often characterized by self-neglect, toughing it out, risk-taking, and denial of personal needs. All of these can contribute to more severe vicarious trauma.

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