Skip to main content

Vicarious Trauma

AD Ellington is currently a graduate student earning her masters degree in mental health counseling.

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is the secondary trauma experienced by those who listen to or are exposed secondarily to the pain, fear, and terror a victim endured (ACA, n.d.). While this term is often in reference to professionals working in the helping field, the impact spreads to family members, friends, and support networks of individuals who have been impacted by trauma (Dr. S. Terry, personal communication, 2020).

The Encompassing Impact of Trauma

Self-care has become a pillar in the mental health community, and the main reason for this is to combat burnout. It is preached and practiced throughout the mental health professional community. This article challenges the idea that the impact of trauma is limited to the victim and the helping professional. Trauma impacts the larger system as well as the victim and the helping professional.

Dr. Louis A. Faillace (2019) discusses the change that can occur over time in individuals, specifically professionals, who work with victims of trauma. The way in which a professional perceives and understands the world around them could change over time due to the exposure to trauma stories (Faillace, 2019). Professionals need to take active steps to ensure their wellbeing, recognize the importance of self-care, and actively practice mindfulness.

The idea that the helping professional is impacted by the trauma stories they listen to daily only makes logical sense. This idea is encompassed by the concept of reality and philosophy, we only know what we know and we don't know what we don't know. When we learn something new it becomes a part of our reality until it is disproven or not believed. When we listen to traumatic encounters our perspective can shift based on the trauma story we are listening to. People join the helping field because they are empathic (most of the time) and that empathy can lead to compassion fatigue if we do not take steps to care for ourselves. When we listen to the stories of others, as empaths, we put ourselves in their position to attempt to understand the others experience and perspective and to better help that individual. Repetition of this process can quickly lead to burnout and compassion fatigue if we aren't also taking time to care for ourselves.

The impact of trauma carries over to the support system of the individual who experienced trauma. I hypothesize that this is true regardless of whether or not the victim shares their story with the support system. The reasoning is that the individual victim has experienced pain and terror which impacts their daily functioning and this impacts the daily functioning of those around them, especially when the victim is present.

We are all a part of a bigger system.

Effects of Trauma on the System

We are all born into a system, and most of us continue to choose to live as part of a family system surrounded by people we love. When trauma occurs it impacts the entire system; the entire system is victimized. The reality for that system has been altered by the trauma, and will inevitably change the perspective of those who make up the victims' system.

The support system may not have directly experienced the trauma, however, the system will experience the change that occurs within the victim and will experience change themselves. The system experiences a loss of who the person was before the trauma and does their best to love and care for the victim while they transition. The support system has the desire to support the victim, in doing so they are exposed to the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, the trauma story (oftentimes), and the behavioral and attitudinal changes in the victim. The support system tries to empathize and sympathize with the victim in an effort to support the victim. This can also lead to burnout and compassion fatigue, however, it is often overlooked in society as it is not directly related to treating the victim or the helping professional.


Signs and Symptoms

According to the American Counseling Association there are signs and symptoms to watch out for which include:

  • difficulty talking about their experience
  • anger and/or irritation
  • startled and/or jumpy
  • over- or under-eating
  • experiencing difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • insomnia related to cycling thoughts about the trauma victim
  • worried about whether or not they are doing enough for the victim
  • dreaming about the trauma experience or the trauma victim
  • loss of joy
  • feeling trapped
  • diminished satisfaction
  • intrusive thoughts
  • hopelessness associated with the victim
  • blaming others


It is important to recognize the need for secondary victims of trauma to seek therapy in order to work through and heal from the effects of vicarious trauma. Supports need support too. It is easy to get lost in helping others and put the needs of yourself on the back burner. You cannot fill someone else's cup when yours is empty. This is why self-care is essential. If your needs are not met you cannot effectively meet the needs of another. Here are some ways you can practice self-care:

  • Therapy
  • Support Groups
  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Exercise
  • Practice good nutrition habits (eat healthy!)
  • Journaling

You are not alone.


ACA. (n.d.) Vicarious trauma. American Counseling Association Fact-Sheet. Retrieved from

Faillace, L.A. (2019). Vicarious trauma. UT Health. Retrieved from

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 AD Ellington