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Helping the Helper

Helping the Helper

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is when a person is exposed to someone else’s traumatic event usually in the form of hearing that person’s story. Helping professionals such as therapists, school counselors, social workers, medical staff, police officers, etc. are at high risk of
experiencing secondary trauma and its effects. Like primary trauma, secondary trauma can affect someone on many levels: physical health, interpersonal relationships, changes in thoughts, behaviors and your ability to emotionally regulate. The most common physical symptoms are chronic fatigue,
sleep disturbance and physical aches and pains. Unfortunately, secondary trauma may not just affect us personally, but it may carry over into our relationships. We may start to prioritize work over everything else, minimize other people’s careers and needs as less important, become obsessive about keeping our own loved ones safe and struggle to relate to anyone who is not in our field. While we all encounter negative thoughts at some point, secondary trauma can cause intrusive thoughts or images which seem to appear out of nowhere in situations where they may not be helpful. When this happens, it may be difficult to see solutions or you may inadvertently compare any life events to traumatic events skewing your perspective and causing you to react differently in the present moment. This can culminate in missing work more oftenavoiding activities that you used enjoy and spending your time trying to escape these thoughts and feelings with drugs, alcohol or other forms of distraction that may be detracting from your life. Secondary trauma can cause feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, irritability, anger, resentment and pessimism. You may have feelings of guilt related to being unable to help enough or to do enough to prevent these traumatic events from happening in the first place. Helping professionals affected by secondary trauma may be more sensitive to accounts or information related to traumatic events to the point of disassociating from their physical body or experiencing emotional cutoff. The sooner you are able to recognize these signs and symptoms, the sooner you can address them and prevent any further damage.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a condition described as a gradual lessening of compassion over time among workers who work directly with victims of disasters, trauma, or illness, especially in the health care industry.  Other professionals can also suffer from compassion fatigue, as well as family members or friends who care for chronically sick or disabled individuals.  Individuals with compassion fatigue have often experienced vicarious trauma and are often experiencing many of the symptoms listed above including hopelessness, sleep disturbance, anxiety, stress, and decreased pleasure in activities.  Compassion fatigue can cause influence overall stress and lead to burnout.

The best line of defense against compassion fatigue is self-care!  Particularly self-awareness and monitoring to notice the signs and symptoms before they escalate.  When symptoms are noticed, taking action immediately is important.  This may include reducing your workload, taking time off, seeking supervision or counsel, and utilizing adaptive coping skills for stress.  If you do not have a good plan for monitoring compassion fatigue or if your efforts to reduce secondary stress are not effective, reach out to a professional counselor or therapist to support you in this process.  This will ensure you are able to continue your job of helping for many more years to come.

For more information and resources for self-care, visit the US-DHHS Administration for Children and Families.


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