Transforming vicarious trauma means something deeper than just coping with it. Over time, one of the key components of vicarious trauma is changes in spirituality. You can come to question your deepest beliefs about the way life and the universe work, and the existence and nature of meaning and hope. Individuals who work with survivors of trauma may be confronted on a daily basis with some of the most troubling questions us as humans will ever encounter – why is there so much suffering in this world? Is there really a God? If so, how could God allow such terrible things to happen and continue to happen? Why do people do such awful things to each other? Why them, and not me?
As your deepest beliefs are challenged and changed as a result of what you see and experience during your interaction with survivors, you change as a person. This isn’t always a comfortable process. But you aren’t a helpless victim in that process. You can transform your vicarious trauma and help use these painful experiences for good.
At the deepest level, transforming vicarious trauma means identifying ways to nurture a sense of meaning and hope. What gives life and work meaning, and what instils or renews hope? Knowing how you answer these questions is important. This gives you a foundation to grapple with the tough questions that may arise – even when those questions don’t seem to have easy (or sometimes, any) answers. Finding ways to stay connected to important sources of meaning and hope in your life, even when you are being deeply challenged, will help you transform your vicarious trauma.
There are three important themes to keep in mind when considering a long-term action plan to help you address vicarious trauma – awareness, balance, and connection.
Awareness is an essential step in figuring out what you are experiencing (your responses to what’s happening in your interaction with survivors, as well as the rest of life) and what you can do to care for yourself. A self-awareness check can help you figure out:
- Potential risk factors that you’re being exposed to; and
- How you are responding
It is important to have a healthy balance between your exposure to trauma and the rest of your life. Acknowledge when it is time to take a break, rest and relax. Balancing is not just about balancing work with other important aspects of your life; it is also about finding a balance within the work that will allow you to support and care for survivors in a sustainable way.
Connecting with people you like and care about is good for just about everything related to physical and mental health. The best social support involves more than just casual connections with people around you; it requires connecting with personal and professional communities. A community serves a very deep and important purpose. A true community is a group of people who know each other, share experiences and values, and reach out to one another in good times or in times of need or distress. Families, clubs, professional bodies, and faith groups, for example, can all be communities. Different communities provide different types of support, so belonging to more than one community can be valuable.
Being connected goes beyond our relationships with other people. It is most important to feel connected to whatever it is that nurtures or anchors you – be that God, faith, nature, humanity, or another source of meaning and purpose. The key to transforming vicarious trauma is to find one’s own path to spiritual renewal – to connecting with a sense of awe, joy, wonder, purpose, and hope – and revisit it regularly and frequently.
Without a sense of meaning, individuals who work with survivors may feel cynical, withdrawn, emotionally numb, hopeless, and outraged. Intentionally engaging in practices that re-connect you to your professional and personal ethics, beliefs and values are an important part of feeling sustained. This could be through prayer, conversations which make space for questions of ethics, purpose and intentions; connecting in fellowship with people who share similar hopes and values; and engaging in community activism around issues of significance.
Adapted from Headington Institute: VT module template – online training module