Vicarious Trauma and the Value of Self-Care for Therapists

People 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:

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  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:

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.

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