Vicarious Trauma: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Frances Roulet

Proposed Resolution

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Researchers, such as, Dunkley and Whelan (2006), Newell and MacNeil (2010) and Pearlman and Mac Ian (1995) have suggested that there are others factors that can also influence the development of a vicarious trauma. These factors can also contribute to the increase in the severity of the impact on trauma workers and other professional practitioners. These other factors are personal trauma history, the number of years working in the area, the amount of experience being exposed to traumatic events or materials, in addition to the existing worldviews.

Actual literature provides recommendations for preventing vicarious trauma, protecting those at risk or currently suffering from it. Even though, the level of risk of experiencing a vicarious trauma is increasing among trauma workers and other professional practitioners. Theorists and researchers continue recommending a number of strategies in order to reduce the levels of symptoms and cognitive disruption (Bober & Regehr, 2006).

The challenge lies in how to prevent and maintain the boundaries, not only when the symptoms are under observation or the person already suffers from a vicarious trauma. Professionals who are in many ways are managing trauma materials, must comprehend how similar and different people respond to trauma materials. Hindle and Morgan (2006) indicated that the importance of addressing changes in the psychosocial relationship with friends and family members becomes a primary key in the process. Therefore, indicating that interpersonal relationships are affected by traumatic events. A clear example of this is the level of work and position responsibilities; whereas, the employee takes home, work in their head, instead of using this time in communicating with their loved ones or friends.

On the other hand, Bober and Regehr (2006) suggested that the dedicated time spent in the cases addressing vicarious trauma victims becomes an issue to be investigated. This factor of dedicated time may lead to a trauma response for professional workers, as well as, survivors of sexual abuse or natural disasters professional trauma-workers (Bober & Regehr, 2006).

Another challenge to confront is the differences between trauma-response professional of sexual abuse survivors and other trauma response professionals, such as, police, medical doctors, criminal lawyers among others; these professionals hold a caseload overload that begin reporting disruptive beliefs, and an increase of self-reported vicarious trauma symptoms, as well as, an increase in PTSD symptoms (Schauben & Frazier, 1995). However, Bober and Regehr (2006) explained that vicarious trauma experience may have diverse reactions in different people. And, instead of individualizing the problem as a personal issue, it manifested as common and expected a response to the continuous exposure to the traumatic materials. It has been argued a numerous of time, that when a stigma is attached to a vicarious trauma experience, it affects the person’s ability negatively in order to access necessary assistance to recover. Once this process initiates, it is important to detach from the individual or organizational stigma connotation and search for the cause of the vicarious trauma within the trauma itself (Brescher, 2004). Researchers indicated that by addressing the vicarious trauma and not stigmatization, the trauma workers can continue and maintain supportive attention to the victims or survivors. Therefore, enjoy their role as practitioners or trauma-workers when they expose themselves to traumatic materials.

The success of different strategies and the ability of the trauma worker to engage both will be impacted by the level of assistance received by trauma workers and practitioners within the organization (Morrison, 2007). According to this research, worker’s and organizations’ ability in handling vicarious trauma will be influenced by a broader social context. And, it will entail and depend upon the experience of the trauma worker (Morrison, 2007).

Bober and Regehr (2006) informed that there has been less research in the process of assessing the effectiveness of several strategies used in treating vicarious trauma. Nevertheless, these same researchers have not found no association in addressing the relationship between the time devoted to coping strategies and the level of trauma stress. When focusing on the individual coping strategies or resilience, it may be a way of blaming the victim, and, misunderstanding the cause of vicarious trauma. At this point, it leads to certain implications in how vicarious trauma should addressed nowadays. The attention should be changed from education to advocacy. Therefore, improvement and have more secure working condition, and environment can develop to protect the trauma-workers (Bober & Regehr, 2006).

Wasco and Campbell (2002) in their research found that counselors’ advocates apply five type of self-care intervention strategies when treating trauma-response professional experiencing vicarious trauma. Specially, when they work with survivors of sexual abuse and natural disasters. These five self-care intervention strategies are:

Transforming the way of thinking about things (cognitive).
Feeling the reaction of your body and senses (physical).
Depend on their religious beliefs or spirituality (spiritual).
Use the support of family members and friends or creative recreational activities as outlets (recreational or social).
Verbalizing or expressing throughout words the details of painful experience and extreme feelings that the victims have experienced (verbal).

There are specific intervention strategies cited in several studies that indicate their effectiveness in treating while working with survivors of sexual abuse and natural disasters. For example, in the process of investigating a wider social causes of sexual assault through social-political involvement. These activities have been found to enable people to channel positively their comprehension and feelings of anger and powerlessness in regards to aggressions against women and deficient systems responses (Iliffe & Steed, 2000).

Trauma specific education can reduce the potential for vicarious trauma because it implies knowing and giving a name to their experience. Moreover, it also allows to provide a framework to comprehend and respond to it (Bell, Kulkarni & Dalton, 2003). According Adams and Riggs (2009), trauma training is not a one-time learning experience, but rather, an ongoing training and multiple intensive modules of training. Maltzman (2011) in his research found the need for self-directed and formal education among workers of trauma response helping professional and practitioners, in defining and maintaining boundaries with the victim suffering from vicarious trauma. Even though, some research indicate that not always trauma-response training decrease levels of vicarious trauma in workers, but it certainly increases the level of competence (Ben-Porat & Itzhaky, 2011). Nevertheless, inexperienced and untrained workers of trauma response should learn about the risks and effects associated with trauma victims because they are more likely to experience the impact (Bell, Kulkarni & Dalton, 2003).

Reflecting upon possible resolutions, it is clear that there is no one solution to the issue of vicarious trauma among workers of trauma response. Nevertheless, the need for working as a team, and reducing the stigma that many people have because of a personal issue rather than an expected reaction to traumatic materials. As an illustration of this reflection, the impact of stigmatizing vicarious trauma-response worker becomes another trauma of professional being bullied. But, without the stigmatization, the trauma response workers can provide a better support and help address the victim or survivor needs. Ultimately, the trauma response workers may continue to enjoy their role as a trauma response, professional worker. Always having in mind that the boundaries can not be crossed under no circumstances and always maintaining constant education and advocacy as a way of not suffering from vicarious trauma.


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Schauben, L. J. & Frazier, P. A. (1995). Vicarious trauma: The effects on female counselors of working with sexual violence survivors. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 49-64.

Wasco, S. M. & Campbell, R. (2002). Emotional reactions of rape victim advocates: A multiple case study of anger and fear. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26(2), 120-130.

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