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Vicarious Trauma: What To Do When Others’ Distress Impacts Your Well-Being

Absorbing others’ trauma can take a big toll on your own mental health

A person's emotional storm raining down on someone else

We’ve all heard of the idea of living vicariously through someone in the best times of their life.

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When your friend had that date, you demanded all the juicy details. When your sibling went to Hawaii, you eagerly scrolled their posts and imagined yourself in their vacation paradise.

It can feel good to enjoy others’ glory. Nothing wrong with that.

But just as you can ride the highs with people in your life, their lows can also become your own.

And when you’re a third party to life events that are depressing, distressing and downright traumatic, that whole putting-yourself-in-their-shoes thing can hurt. Bad.

It’s called vicarious trauma. It’s a term that gets to the heart of the emotional upheaval that can come with bearing witness to another’s trauma.

We talked with psychotherapist and trauma specialist Amy Brodsky, LISW-S, about what vicarious trauma is, why it happens and how to protect yourself.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is the experience of absorbing others’ pain in times of their distress so deeply that it affects your own well-being. It’s closely related to concepts like empathy fatigue, secondary trauma, vicarious distress and caretaker burnout.

“‘Vicarious trauma’ isn’t a clinical term, but it’s an accepted phrase that gets to the idea that people can be traumatized by something they didn’t personally experience, but that they have secondary experience to,” Brodsky explains.

But wait, you’re thinking, that sounds a lot like empathy. And isn’t empathy a good thing?

To an extent, yes. Empathy — our ability to relate to others’ emotions — is a good thing. And it’s a normal part of the human experience.

“There’s strength in being sensitive, in being an empathetic person. But there are boundaries that we need to have that delineate between our experiences and other people’s experiences,” Brodsky clarifies. “Because when we’re carrying someone else’s dismay, someone else’s distress, there can be very real consequences for you. And it doesn’t help them.”

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Think of it like this: You’re walking with a friend, and they fall into quicksand. Jumping into the quicksand with them won’t do either of you any good. Seeking dry land, and offering them a branch to pull themselves out with? Now you’re on to something.

“If I get into quicksand, now we’re both drowning. And neither of us can do anything about it,” Brodsky elaborates. “It doesn’t help anyone if you jump into the quagmire with them.”

What causes vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma can happen to anyone who’s exposed to others’ traumatic events or others’ suffering. It’s often a cumulative effect. That is, a result of repeated exposure to the worst of human experiences.

But not always. Vicarious trauma can be a reaction to witnessing even a single traumatic effect. Maybe seeing a car crash. Or being on the receiving end of a triggering trauma-dumping session.

And some people may be more likely to take on other people’s pain more acutely.

For example, some jobs are naturally more likely to put you in direct (and repeated) contact with people who have experienced trauma. Think about police officers poring over crime scene photos day after day. Mental health professionals hearing stories of their clients’ lived experiences. Emergency room healthcare providers treating injuries from natural disasters and violent altercations.

Being exposed to the ills of the world time and time again can wear on you.

But vicarious trauma isn’t only an occupational hazard. Brodsky points out that we’re all constantly exposed to traumatic events that don’t affect us directly. And they can have a lasting impact on our well-being.

“Media can cause some real trauma responses from folks who aren’t even involved in the events,” she notes. “Just because they’re airing it 24/7 or it’s popping up in our social media algorithm doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for us to take in. It’s not good for us to try to metabolize that constantly.”

Children can be especially affected by seeing graphic footage and witnessing human suffering. Brosky says that’s because kids can’t fully process the difference between something that’s a present danger to them versus something that’s not.

And it’s not just in the media they consume. Researchers say that kids “may be vicariously traumatized from learning about the trauma of family and friends.”

What’s more: Trauma from your past can play a big role in how you respond to others’ distress.

“If you’re having a serious trauma response to something that hasn’t actually happened to you, it may be because you had life experiences that need some healing,” Brodsky suggests. “It could be an indicator that you were already grappling with your own trauma — consciously or not. And this event is reminding your brain of the distress it’s already dealing with.”

Signs of vicarious trauma

So, what does vicarious trauma feel like? How do you know if you’ve crossed the threshold from being empathetic to getting sucked into the quicksand?

Vicarious trauma can cause you to feel similar symptoms to people who were themselves the victims of direct trauma. That’s to say that even though you know the trauma isn’t your own, your body and brain can react as if you’ve been personally traumatized.

That can be things like:

  • Changes in mood, like feeling especially guilty, shameful, fearful, angry, hopeless or “numb.”
  • Having difficulty managing your emotions.
  • Excessive worrying.
  • Becoming detached from others or things you used to enjoy.
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping.
  • Hypervigilance, or being “on high alert.”

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In short, vicarious trauma can hamper your own well-being and your ability to care for others.

“When you’re living in a state of vicarious trauma, it becomes harder to maintain a level of compassion. It’s harder to maintain your empathy or sympathy for other people,” Brodsky says. “If you’re bombarded constantly, your tendency might be to pull away emotionally because it becomes too painful.”

Coping with vicarious trauma

Dealing with vicarious trauma is a matter of positioning yourself as a “conduit, rather than a sponge,” in Brodsky’s words. That means it’s about finding ways to allow others’ pain flow to through you, rather than soaking it in.

Going back to the quicksand example: As a witness to trauma, you’re the one on dry land. And only if you can manage to stay there, can you use your position as an outsider to help those who have been directly affected.

“Other people’s trauma deserves our attention. It can alert us to bad situations, and it can mobilize us to take steps for change,” Brodsky shares. “But it doesn’t serve anybody very well for us to carry the trauma of those events.”

Steeling yourself against falling into the quicksand can give you a platform to make a difference. To lift others up. To advocate for change.

Being in the quicksand just leaves you struggling to keep your chin up.

So, how do you keep your feet on solid ground?

You need to take care of yourself. First.

“Taking care of yourself puts you in a better position to take care of others,” Brodsky stresses. “You need to have other places to put your energy rather than laser-focusing on the scary and awful aspects of life.”

Caring for yourself means living a full life where you can acknowledge the ills of the world without them taking hold over you. That may look like:

  • Having engaging hobbies.
  • Practicing grounding techniques, like breathwork, mindfulness or guided imagery.
  • Engaging with friends and family who aren’t in crisis.
  • Taking care of your physical health by eating well, exercising and sleeping enough.
  • Limiting (or avoiding) exposure to traumatic media.
  • Talking with a mental healthcare provider, like a therapist or psychologist.

If you’re a parent or guardian or have frequent interactions with kids, protect them from traumatic news programs, images, videos and “adult talk” when possible.

“Kids don’t need to be exposed to traumatic news events or see graphic or disturbing images,” Brodsky advises. “That doesn’t help them. They can learn to be empathetic without all the gory details.”

If you suspect that your vicarious trauma response is rooted in your own trauma, seek treatment. It can make a big difference.

“If you take care of your own adversity responses, then you will be able to work through the external stimulation better. It won’t have the same hold on you,” Brodsky reassures.

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