Vicarious Trauma

Phil Bradfield

I hope that everyone is having a fun summer in the midst of the ups and downs that come with the ministry we are serving in.  This month I want to re-visit a topic that I have written about before, one we’ve have had trainings on: vicarious trauma.  This is such an important topic as we strive to care for ourselves while helping the children in our care. We need to monitor ourselves for vicarious trauma because of the potential for Satan to use it to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).  We’ll also address some ways to cope with vicarious trauma and tools to overcome it so that we may continue in the good work that God has predestined for us to do, full of the Holy Spirit.

First of all, let me define a few terms as a reminder.  Here’s how the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma, “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstance that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.”  Dr. Denise Colson, of Eagles Landing Christian Counseling Center, provides an even broader definition of trauma as, “any event from outside of your power/control/conscious choice which contradicts your identity to the point that it raises your stress to toxic levels and creates unacceptable losses.”  I prefer the second definition because it frames the trauma (and what constitutes trauma) more around individual experiences rather than a pre-determined set of criteria.

Researchers discuss vicarious trauma (or secondary trauma) as a helping professionals’ trauma reactions that are secondary to repeated exposure to their clients’ or consumers’ trauma experiences.  In other words, as foster or house parents you can experience vicarious trauma if you are exposed to your children’s trauma over and over.  You might be repeatedly exposed to their trauma in different ways.  For example, it could happen simply by hearing about multiple traumas in the life of one or more of your children.  Or it could also rear its head when a child’s trauma is triggered causing them to exhibit difficult behavior and repeatedly raise your stress level.  In my opinion, vicarious trauma is a slower process than direct impact traumas like physical or sexual abuse.

Some professionals think of these two types of trauma as big “T” traumas and little “t” traumas.  Vicarious trauma would mostly be categorized under little “t” type traumas, but when you add a bunch of them together, it can cause a person in a position of care to experience what is called “compassion fatigue.”  A person who experiences compassion fatigue might be tempted to gradually lessen their level of compassion over time. Compassion fatigue manifests itself in a variety of symptoms: physical/emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, anger towards those in our care, irritability, difficulty sleeping, pessimistic thinking/talking, or drastic mood changes.  Essentially vicarious trauma that leads to compassion fatigue or burnout is linked to a person’s depleted ability to cope with their everyday life and environment.

The best way to cope with vicarious trauma is on the preventative side, but if you realize you are already experiencing some symptoms of vicarious trauma, you can immediately implement the same coping mechanisms you’d use in preventative care. Some of the best ways to cope include placing boundaries in your life and seeking out counseling.  Boundaries help you regain and maintain a feeling of empowerment to better steward your life —  I think they’re heavily underestimated.

Brene Brown is one of the better-known researchers in the the area of trauma, pain, and human vulnerability.  In one of her earliest studies, Dr. Brown found that the most compassionate people are the most boundaried people.  That finding can be especially hard for caregivers to embrace because it sometimes seems like compassionate people should just keep giving and giving.  But we have to remember in doing God’s work that we are human, and we need rest and to be ministered to ourselves.

The Bible records the importance of boundaries twice in the New Testament in nearly the same statement, “But let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’  Whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37).  And later it is written, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.  But let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no,’ lest you fall into condemnation” (James 5:12).  Both passages, in their original context, warned Jewish Christians against taking an oath to do something.  Back then, taking an oath imposed an obligation on a person they had to fulfill or something they were honor bound to do.  Many would swear to complete an obligation without following through, but Jesus and James tell us rather to let our yes be yes, and no be no.  In modern terms we might say, ‘don’t take on more than you can handle.’  Say yes to that which you are able to do and no to that which you should not take on.  For me, in trying to discern how to make wise decisions, I’ve learned that if I feel like I have to say ‘yes,’ there is usually a good chance that I need to say ‘no.’

Counseling is another way to cope and maintain a sense of feeling cared for yourself.  Counselors are professionally trained to show empathy and compassion as you vulnerably share.  Research has shown that healing occurs when we vulnerably share our stories and are met with compassion and empathy from someone else in return.

If you feel any of the vicarious trauma symptoms described above, please do not wait to deal with it later. Vicarious trauma is serious, but creating boundaries and seeking out counseling can aid in your recovery and recuperation.  If you ever need help finding counseling services, please let me or someone on the WinShape Homes clinical care team know.  We love you and are praying for you!