Witnessing or hearing about a distressing event and someone else's traumatic experience can lead to what is called "Vicarious Trauma".
Vicarious trauma's cause is indirect. It is related to the trauma that occurred to someone else. As a witness to a traumatising experience you can feel overwhelmed and experience, to a lesser degree, the same terror, rage, and despair as the person.
When you are exposed to a traumatic experience, even if you are not physically there, your brain has the ability to experience symptoms of anxiety, similar to what you would have felt, if you were there. Our brain is prepared to protect us from what we perceive, is a threat to our safety. When we see, feel or hear something we don't expect, our brain will assess what we are feeling, to decide if we are safe or if we need to react. When this becomes part of your daily experience, it may cause trauma symptoms.
Even when the triggers are relatively small and are perceived as insignificant, they can have a cumulative effect, meaning that the experience of vicarious trauma can increase with time.
It can be easy to underestimate the signs of vicarious trauma and assume they are not important, and that they will go away on their own. They can be temporary, but if they keep reoccurring or you have a job with the potential of triggering these responses, it is important to observe your reactions.
Signs to look out for:
- intrusive thoughts or images that come to mind without your control
- unrealistic expectations about your job: super hero complex
- survivors guilt
- feeling hopeless
- sleep issues
- lacking concentration
- feeling numb
- increased sensitivity to violence
- difficulty having healthy boundaries between your work life and personal life
- escapist behaviours such as smoking, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, using drugs
- risk taking behaviours.
How can I protect myself?
- being aware of it, is the first step
- pay attention if your mood, behaviour, interactions, or health are changing
- instead of repressing what you feel give your thoughts and feelings space
- give yourself the space you need to make decisions
- try to find a good balance between work, play, rest, and nutrition
- try meditation or other techniques
- involve someone else as soon as you recognize some signs talk: to a colleague/ friend and ask them to pay attention to help you identify when it happens
- talk to your manager and discuss if you need additional support.
Remember you don't have to deal with these feelings alone, and your reactions are not unusual, but if you are finding them hard to cope with, please seek support.