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As social species, human beings are sociobiologically connected to each other. Just like is seen in some of those war or action movies, witnessing another person’s suffering can be so traumatic that torturers force their victim to observe the torture of another, oftentimes someone the victim cares about, in order to elicit information or engineer cooperation. It has long been recognized that emergency workers, doctors, nurses, police officers, firemen, journalists, clergy, social service workers, colleagues, family members, and other witnesses and bystanders to disasters and other trauma can experience secondary symptoms themselves.

As earlier mentioned in the previous post, vicarious trauma can affect individuals who are frequently in close contact with trauma survivors psychologically and spiritually. It can affect how they relate to their families, friends, and partners. It impacts on areas of psychological need including: safety, trust, esteem, intimacy and control.

Signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma include:


  • Prolonged grief.
  • Prolonged anxiety.
  • Prolonged sadness.
  • Irritability.
  • Labile mood.
  • Depression.
  • Agitation/anger.
  • Changed sense of humour.
  • Tuning out.
  • Feeling less safe in the world.

  • Isolation.
  • Avoidance.
  • Numbing.
  • Staying at work longer.
  • Not being able to separate work from personal life.
  • Increased alcohol consumption.
  • Undertaking risky behaviours.
  • Avoiding people or duties.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Changed eating habits.

  • Headaches.
  • Hives or rashes.
  • Heartburn.
  • Migraines.
  • Stomach ulcers.
  • Tics.
  • Anxiety.
  • Hot sweats.

  • Changed relationship with meaning and hope.
  • Lack of sense of purpose.
  • Decreased sense of agency.
  • Reduced sense of connection to others.
  • Challenges to maintain a sense of self as viable, worth loving, deserving.

  • Cynicism.
  • Becoming judgmental of others.
  • Negativity.
  • Difficulty thinking clearly, concentrating, and remembering things.
  • Difficulty making day-to-day decisions.

It is useful to maintain awareness of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma and how to look after yourself in a way that would support you to stay engaged and present while supporting other people in the long term. Learning to recognize one’s own symptoms of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma has two-fold purpose: first, it can serve as an important check-in process for a helper who has been feeling unhappy and dissatisfied, but doesn’t have the words to explain what is happening to them; and secondly, it can allow this helper develop a warning system for themselves. Developing a warning system would allow you to track your level of emotional and physical depletion. It would also offer you the tools and strategies that you can implement right away. It is important not to be discouraged, there are ways to cope with and transform vicarious trauma.



  1. American Counselling Association. Vicarious Trauma:¬†https://www.counseling.org/docs/trauma-disaster/fact-sheet-9—vicarious-trauma.pdf?sfvrsn=2
  2. http://sanctuaryweb.com/TheSanctuaryModel/THESANCTUARYMODELFOURPILLARS/Pillar1SharedKnowledge/GROUPSUNDERSTRESS/WorkplaceStress/VicariousTrauma.aspx

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