Vicarious: that which is experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.
Vicarious Trauma or Vicarious Secondary Trauma is a complicated subject and this post only skims the surface. Vicarious trauma (VT) and Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) are frequently used interchangeably to refer to the indirect trauma that can occur when we are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories second-hand.
Direct trauma is that which is experienced by the self for example by experiencing an abusive childhood. Secondary trauma is the development of PTSD-like symptoms without directly witnessing or having been involved in a traumatic event for example researchers dealing with the traumatic experiences of others/disturbing images, can themselves become traumatised and go on to suffer from various symptoms and possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unlike vicarious trauma, which accumulates over time, secondary trauma can occur unexpectedly and suddenly – e.g. witnessing an accident.
Possible secondary trauma effects have been extensively recognized and documented in those indirectly exposed to traumatic experiences through their affiliation with direct victims; for example family members, first responders and health care professionals. However, recognition and the study of potential secondary traumatization as the result of involvement in trauma research have only recently begun to emerge.
Have you ever sat in a lecture or presentation and gone home and not been okay? Or read an article or book that has left you upset for days? I don’t mean an emotional response which evaporates after a very short while – I mean traumatic thoughts/visions in the head that last for days possibly weeks or even months.
I’m in my last PhD year and have learnt from my own experiences to be very careful with my self before attending events or reading particular books. I often don’t attend an event or workshop if I know I am going to get triggered or set off old PTSD. I know what the cost of that can be to me.
A few years ago, I had to read a memoir as I was giving a presentation about ‘misery lit’ a derogatory title, but in fact some of the stories are very miserable. I was traumatised reading about the terrible incidents experienced by two little boys, one of whom died from the horrific abuse by the foster parents. That book triggered my own PTSD but my empathy both conscious and unconscious meant I also experienced Vicarious (Secondary) Trauma i.e. living out the child’s experiences in my imagination, not looking after my own mental health and being left with re-occurring thoughts and images for days.
To understand more, you could begin by watching this video featuring Dr. Laurie Pearlman, world-renowned expert on the subject. ‘What is vicarious trauma?’ Or speak to your supervisor or fellow researchers, and for resources ask your librarian.
As researchers and caring individuals, we have a responsibility to look after our own mental health. Those adults giving talks about their traumatic pasts also have a responsibility to their audiences and can consider them by having good boundaries and signposting where to get help/advice if needed. Charity/ government/officials also have a responsibility to care not just for the person giving a talk, who might be a very young person, but also their audiences. Some speakers haven’t had therapeutic interventions or processed their own traumas, so their ability to hold an audience might be more difficult. It makes a huge difference for everyone involved to be in a safe environment.
Common signs of vicarious trauma
- experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness about a participant’s victimisation
- becoming overly involved emotionally with the participant
- experiencing bystander guilt, shame, feelings of self-doubt
- being preoccupied with thoughts of participants outside of the research situation
- over identification with the participant (having horror and rescue fantasies)
- loss of hope, pessimism, cynicism
- distancing, numbing, detachment, cutting participants off, staying busy. Avoiding listening to participant’s story of traumatic experiences
- difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries with the participant, such as overextending self (trying to do more than is in the role of researcher).
If you are experiencing any of these signs, this could indicate that you are suffering from vicarious trauma.
I would also add lack of concentration. My ability to stay focused and read a book from start to finish has also been affected.
For those people with traumatic pasts for example; refugees, domestic violence, care experience; working in fields such as social work or as a researcher where you are likely to come into contact with others’ trauma can be doubly difficult. We already know people can get triggered out of the blue. As care experienced researchers researching trauma, it could be PTSD x 2. And if you don’t have anyone to speak to about that experience, it can be sometimes frightening and overwhelming.
Suggestions for coping:
Find out if your university runs a course around this subject. If they don’t, contact the relevant department and ask them to consider running something around vicarious trauma. It’s something that should be available for doctoral researchers who will spend some years immersed in what can be difficult research. You can refer them to University of Oxford, Vicarious [Secondary] Trauma Workshop which is for researchers whose work engages them with the traumatic experiences of others. Only Oxford graduates can attend this course, but it gives your department an idea of what it covers and a contact for further discussion.
Unfortunately, sometimes there is no way to deal with ‘it’. Sometimes it is like stepping on a metaphorical landmine, too late you’ve just blown yourself up.
These though are pre-event/workshop/research tips:
If you have a traumatic past make sure you read through what the event is about or even if you don’t. Google the details/people. Are they going to re/traumatise you? Do your research beforehand.
If your research is going to involve either participant’s trauma or your own, it is worth considering how best to deal with that – our academic supervisors are not counsellors. Due to the nature of my PhD it has been inevitable that at times I will be affected in varying degrees. Early on I recognised this and got myself what I call an emotional supervisor i.e. a counsellor.
And if you have to read/view/hear traumatic material, be prepared, and do self-care – some of which is listed below.
Take care of you.
- If you find yourself triggered, speak to a trusted friend or colleague.
- If you have access to a counsellor, speak to them. Really learn and understand why you’ve been triggered and what you can do to protect yourself in the future.
- Make use of the wellbeing service in the university or workplace.
- If you don’t have access to services, speak to your doctor and ask for access to therapeutic services.
- Try and practice meditation or mindfulness, just the slowing down of breath creates time out and focus on yourself.
- When working on research include self-care breaks whether this be chill time, exercise, creative activities or even washing up – which can be meditative in its own way.
- Prioritise food, sleep, and spending time with loved ones.
A very few references, there are many more for those engaged in traumatic research/work:
- Neuroscientist Sara Lazar talks about how meditation widens the ‘window of tolerance’ and reduces emotional reactivity in her TEDxCambridge 2011 talk: “How meditation can reshape our brains“
- van der Kolk, B.  The Body Keeps the Score New York: Penguin.
- Schiraldi, G. (2016) The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook New York: McGraw Hill.
- Brockman, H. (2012) Essential Self-Care for Caregivers Salem: Columbia Press.
- Williamson, E., Gregory, A., Abrahams, H., Aghtaie, N. Walker, S.-J., Hester, M. (2020) “Secondary Trauma: Emotional Safety in Sensitive Research” Journal of Academic Ethics published online 7 Jan 2020: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-019-09348-y.
 Roni Berger, R. (2021) ‘Studying trauma: Indirect effects on researchers and self – And strategies for addressing them’, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Volume (5), Issue 1, Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejtd.2020.100149