The challenges that come from opening your heart and mind to people’s suffering can trigger personal growth and a greater appreciation of your blessings. However, these challenges can also be so demanding that they cause some reactions that are similar to those experienced by people who have undergone traumatic events, like sexual violence. What then can someone who is focused on helping others during/after traumatic experiences, or who is in close contact with survivors of sexual violence do about vicarious trauma? Should you try to stop caring so much – stop empathizing with people who are hurting? Should you stop feeling committed and responsible?
Those are options, but there are better options.
Simply understanding more about vicarious trauma is a great first step. This will help you decide what you might need in order to best prevent and address what you might experience. Learning to be aware of and address the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma in an on-going manner goes a long way toward making sure you don’t feel burdened by the effects. Understanding these things provides many helpful ways to cope with vicarious trauma.
Coping with vicarious trauma means learning to live with the process so that you can still do what you do. It means accepting vicarious trauma as part of the work and learning to manage it effectively on a day-to-day basis. It also means identifying strategies that can both help prevent VT from becoming severe and problematic, and help manage VT during times when it is more problematic. Good coping strategies are things that help you take care of yourself – especially things that help you escape, rest, and play. These might include:
- Escape: getting away from all of it for a while, physically and mentally (books or films, taking a day or a week off, playing video games, connecting with friends and family).
- Rest: having no goal or time-line, or doing things you find relaxing (lying on the grass watching the clouds, sipping a cup of tea, taking a nap, getting a massage, etc.)
- Play: engaging in activities that make you laugh or lighten your spirit (sharing funny stories with a friend, playing with a child, being creative, being physically active, etc.)
- It is also important to set healthy boundaries.
- Remind yourself of the importance and value of the help you give.
- Practice mindfulness: be deliberate about noticing the “little things” that aren’t so little – brief connection with others, the laughter of a child, the sound of the wind in the trees, small moments of silence.
- Cultivate fun and bonding rituals, ceremonies, and traditions with people you care about, and who care about you in return.
- Take time to reflect (writing in journals, meditating, etc)
- Identify and challenge your own cynical beliefs.
When you are experiencing overwhelming volumes of information—especially information that holds an emotional charge—your body, mind and spirit adapt to help you cope. At times, the way you cope may help in the moment but may have longer term negative results. Understanding the costs associated with some coping strategies will help you grow closer to solutions. If you notice any of your own experiences of VT, please remember that solutions exist and there are ways to engage in your work not only without harm to self or others, but in a way that actually amplifies your sense of resiliency and hope that are also associated with doing work in the field of sexual trauma. The more you can integrate wellness practices into your everyday life, the deeper the root they will take. They will enhance your life and the lives of those around you and they will be more likely to sustain—and help you find your voice—during more difficult times where it might be harder to hear.
Adapted from Headington Institute: VT module template – online training module