Pay Attention to Vicarious Traumatization

Woman with Hands on TemplesTrauma-informed care relies on the relationship between treater and client to create change. Within the relationship, client’s brains change and become more connected. And their basic assumptions about other humans change, making room for trust and hope in their lives.

Relationships have two sides: the clients and the treater. We talk a lot about our clients, and we have to pay equal attention to ourselves, the treaters. We must embed attention to vicarious traumatization (VT) into our work places.

VT refers to the negative changes in the helper as a result of empathically engaging with and feeling, or being, responsible for traumatized clients.

  • VT is an inescapable effect of trauma work — an occupational hazard.
  • It is neither the fault of the client, nor a result of “weakness” on the part of the treater.
  • VT damages hope and optimism, which are essential gifts we bring to our work.

The single most important factor in the success or failure of trauma work is the attention paid to the experience and needs of the helper.

Addressing VT is an ethical imperative.

VT can impact:

  • Our identity, worldview, and spirituality
  • Our core beliefs about safety, trust, esteem, control, and intimacy
  • Our own ability to manage feelings
  • Our bodily feelings and experience including our sexuality
  • Our sense of meaning and hope

Addressing and Transforming  Vicarious Traumatization

 Anticipating VT and Protecting Yourself – The ABCs


  • Be attuned to your own and each other’s  needs, limits, emotions, resources.
  • Pay attention to  all sources of information—thoughts, body, emotions, and feedback from others..


  • Keep a balance over time among work, play, and rest.


  • Our work has intense connections. To remain open to those, we need fulfilling connections outside of work. These can be with oneself, with others, and to something larger

Addressing Signs of VT

Maintain the activities that keep you healthy, sane, and give you joy. These include:

  • Self-Care- eating, exercise, medical care, sleep, etc.
  •  Self-Nurture- all the things you love, like friends, family, knitting, sports, gardening, dancing, music, reading, and many, many more.
  •   Escape- get away from it all through travel, books, movies, or just vegging out.

There are many things agencies can do to help combat VT. They include:

  • Foster culture where there’s permission to discuss VT.
  • Embed attention to VT in the workings of organization like regular retreats or forums.
  • Provide adequate supervision.
  • Offer health benefits that include mental health coverage.
  • Use staffing patterns that allow back-up and sharing of responsibility and coverage.
  • Set reasonable caseload expectations.
  • Work with staff to identify and address signs of VT.

Grief wounds more deeply in solitude; tears are less bitter when mingled with other tears. 

                                                Agememnon SenecaSeneca2

Transforming the Pain of Vicarious Traumatization

The pain of VT can lead us to search for hope and meaning in our work and our lives.

Working with people who have experienced great pain teaches us about:

  • Courage and human resilience
  • The possibility of transformation
  • Gratitude in our own lives
  • The power of hope

Remembering the meaning of our work helps us to endure and transform VT

Rachel Naomi RemenThere is a privilege working with people on the edge of life. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer.

Rachel Naomi Remen, 2006

(Excerpted from Saakvitne, Karen et al.(2000) Risking connection: A training curriculum for working with survivors of childhood abuse. Lutherville, MD: Sidran Press.)



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