Vicarious Trauma and the Value of Self-Care for Therapists

Person sits in meadow with dog at sunsetPeople are drawn to the helping professions for many different reasons. They may feel a calling to assist in relieving others’ suffering and to help them heal from their emotional wounds. They may have been traumatized themselves and wish to share the coping skills they’ve learned with others going through similar issues. Or they may feel caring for others brings meaning and a sense of purpose to their lives.

Whatever their reasons for becoming a therapist or other helping professional, they often experience vicarious trauma through the stories told by the people they work with. This secondary trauma, also referred to as compassion fatigue, can seriously hinder their work if they remain unaware of its negative impact and/or do not practice sufficient self-care strategies.

Becoming aware of the signs of compassion fatigue is the first step in addressing the issue. The following are some red flags:

  1. Preoccupation with the traumatic stories of the people they work with
  2. Emotional symptoms of anger, grief, mood swings, anxiety, or depression
  3. Physical issues related to stress, such as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or problems sleeping
  4. Feeling burned out, powerless, hopeless, disillusioned, irritable, and/or angry toward “the system”
  5. A tendency to self-isolate, be tardy, avoid certain people, or experience a lack of empathy and loss of motivation

Some of the professionals most likely to experience compassion fatigue include therapists, social workers, child welfare workers, emergency workers, police officers, firefighters, and ministers. However, anyone working with trauma survivors is susceptible to vicarious trauma. Helping professionals who have been subjected to trauma themselves also may be more at risk for developing compassion fatigue, especially if they have not worked through their issues.

Developing an adequate self-care strategy is key to preventing or overcoming vicarious trauma. Some of the techniques that can be used include:

  • Maintain a good work-life balance. This involves taking time off to recharge and avoiding working long hours and/or carrying too heavy of a caseload or workload.
  • Exercise to relieve stress. Developing a good workout routine is important to help increase feel-good endorphins and improve one’s outlook on life. Taking a yoga class, doing aerobic activity, or even just going for a walk can be invigorating and help change one’s perspective.
  • Start a meditation practice. Initially, try sitting quietly for just 10 minutes a day, then gradually increase the time to 20 minutes. Meditation has many benefits and can assist one with feeling more peaceful and grounded.
  • Develop a good social network. Having a good support system in place is important in order to be able to connect with others in a meaningful way.
  • Use humor to unwind. Humor is good medicine when it comes to relieving stress and improving one’s mood. Watch a comedy, play with a pet, read a funny book—whatever moves you and helps you relax.
  • Reconnect with Mother Nature. Being out in nature is therapeutic, whether you go for a hike in the woods, a walk on the beach, or just do a little gardening.
  • Get involved with activities outside of work. Take your mind off of work by taking a class or engaging in a creative endeavor such as drawing, painting, or writing.
  • Meet with a therapist to discuss concerns. Even individuals in the helping professions can benefit from meeting with a counselor, especially when they are experiencing compassion fatigue. A compassionate therapist can help put things in perspective and help identify additional coping skills.

Although all helping professionals are in danger of developing compassion fatigue, especially when working with individuals who have experienced traumatic events, having a self-care plan in place can help reduce the risks.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Wendy Salazar, MFT, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Reggie

    June 27th, 2016 at 8:05 AM

    There are probably other professions where this sort of compassion fatigue shows up as well. Maybe teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and yes therapists all share this tendency in common. I think that any of us who are drawn to helping others as our professions can come to a place where it all starts to feel so overwhelming. We are so busy taking care of other people that we get to a point where we see that we have stopped in essence taking care of our own lives. We can never ignore the needs of other people, but at the same time, we cannot ignore our own needs along the way.

  • Vanessa

    January 30th, 2020 at 2:38 AM

    Yes! I’m a nurse in a spinal cord injury unit. I was surprised they didn’t say nurses.

  • Sue

    February 7th, 2020 at 6:13 PM

    I was surprised that teachers were not included because they see children every day who are affected by various types of trauma or neglect as well as those diagnosed with disabilities that require extra attention as well.

  • paige

    June 27th, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    Unfortunately it seems that it is those who give so much of themselves have a difficult time seeing when they actually need help for themselves too

  • Terrell

    June 28th, 2016 at 9:21 AM

    There are probably a good number who would be afraid to step away to take care of their own issues because they are fearful of their own patients and what they will do without them.
    I am sure that they hear this often that someone says that they don’t know what they would do without them in their lives and so they have to take this to heart.
    But they also need to understand that like they tell all of mus, you are no good to anyone else unless you first stop to take care of yourself.

  • trent

    June 30th, 2016 at 4:41 AM

    Therapists are just like the rest of us.
    Some days are harder than others.
    Some people that they encounter in their practices are harder than others.
    And they have the right to process this just like any of the rest of us do.

  • tobias

    July 2nd, 2016 at 9:17 AM

    There will always be value in self care no matter who you are or what kind of job you do.

  • John

    February 21st, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    Therapists need help too because they can be overwhelmed with other peoples problems.

  • Leslie

    April 3rd, 2018 at 6:33 PM

    Maybe others can relate, but as a CPS social worker, the pace is fast and the pain of others can impact me. Sometimes clients are angry and abusive. Many don’t cooperate regardless of what you do. Many blame me for what I did or didn’t do. This is the obvious stress. But what I don’t hear talked about so much is that social workers are constantly solving problems of others when sometimes I don’t have the solution. Everyday I come to work and sit in my office or in a meeting constantly trying to find solutions to other’s problems, for hours a day, everyday. Nobody knows what I’m doing or what toll it takes, because I work in such isolation and my work is confidential. I can’t talk about it with friends or family, coworkers are busy with their own stress. I return emails and phone calls and solve problems all day, every day. I have begun to leave work feeling depleted and exhausted. Like the energy goes out, but isn’t replaced with an equal amount of energy returned. I love the job, but self care is only mentioned. The job still has to be done regardless of how exhausted you are.

  • Anita

    August 31st, 2018 at 2:28 PM

    This is so good. Thank you for sharing. I also think of pastors, who give so much of themselves to helping others.

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