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Navigating vicarious trauma: Coping with the emotional toll of witnessing other’s trauma 

Witnessing others' trauma takes a toll on our emotional wellbeing, leading to vicarious trauma. From news to social media, absorbing narratives deeply affects us. Understanding and addressing this impact is crucial for maintaining mental health.
A shocked woman holding her hand over her mouth while looking at the screen on her phone

In a world where information flows freely, we are often confronted with distressing stories of tragedy and suffering. Whether through news outlets, social media, or personal interactions, the human experience is filled with trauma. But what happens when we absorb these narratives, empathising deeply with the pain of others? This process, known as vicarious trauma or secondary trauma, can profoundly impact our emotional wellbeing, despite not directly experiencing it ourselves. 

Understanding vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma isn’t merely about hearing or witnessing traumatic events, it is about the emotional transformation that occurs as a result of empathic engagement with survivors. It’s the emotional weight of someone else’s trauma, feeling the weight of their suffering as if it were our own. 

This phenomenon can leave us feeling overwhelmed, distressed or even changed by what we’ve been exposed to through stories, media or the experiences of those around us. In some cases, it manifests as hypervigilance, where we find ourselves constantly monitoring news and events, unable to escape the relentless stream of distressing information. 

Theorists suggest that vicarious grieving is built into the human psyche. It comes out of our capacity to be empathic, to care for one another. However, this empathy and care can come a cost. 

The impact of media exposure

Media exposure’s profound impact is evident as we reflect on the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, prompting widespread monitoring of news outlets, often on an hourly basis. The inundation of graphic and polarising content via television, news feeds, and social media exacerbates our sense of foreboding, making it challenging to escape or ignore distressing narratives. With major global events unfolding daily, the real-time nature of social media ensures intimate exposure to details, prompting frequent updates and disrupting daily routines. As we navigate these events, our empathetic responses vary, from deep sorrow to heightened emotional reactions, reflecting the complex interplay between media exposure and vicarious trauma. 

Understanding vicarious trauma in professional settings

It’s not just individuals who are exposed to news events that experience vicarious trauma. Those working or volunteering in industries like emergency services, law enforcement and victim services are continuously exposed to trauma and violence, putting them at risk of vicarious trauma. 

Examples of vicarious trauma

“My daily routines have been impacted by some of the recent tragic news stories.  I have changed the time I go for my run as well as the route, because I am feeling unsafe.” 

“I have recently removed social media from my phone because I am feeling really controlled by the news and information I see so frequently. I was starting to feel quite anxious.” 

“I am always impacted by news stories that involve children. I lost my daughter many years ago, but my grief resurfaces whenever I hear of a family who is impacted by a loss like mine.” 

“One of my co-workers passed away suddenly. We weren’t close but I saw him every morning getting a coffee. I feel a sense of loss knowing he will never buy his coffee, sit at his desk or see his family again. I am not sure why this has impacted me so much given I didn’t really know him.” 

“As a first responder it’s not always possible to ‘sign-off’ on a patient once we leave them in someone else’s care. I have a ritual that helps me process my difficult days but doesn’t mean I instantly switch off and forget.” 

Signs/symptoms of vicarious trauma

Some of the common signs and symptoms of vicarious or secondary trauma include: 

  • Difficulty managing emotions 
  • Shutting down or feeling numb 
  • Fatigue, insomnia, sleepiness 
  • Feeling aches and pains or other physical symptoms or decreased resistance to illness 
  • Being easily distracted 
  • Feeling a sense of loss of the meaning of life or hope for the future and a lack of interest in participating in life 
  • Being irritable, aggressive or violent behaviour 
  • Destructive coping or addictive behaviour 

Supporting ourselves: nurturing emotional wellbeing

Marianne Bowdler, Griefline’s Clinical Services Manager, uses her person-centred counselling expertise to guide us on how to nurture our well-being when symptoms of vicarious trauma are exposed. 

In a culture saturated with screens and distractions, the art of emotional processing often takes a backseat, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from our feelings. However our evolutionary heritage suggests that emotions, when given the time and space to be explored, can be effectively discharged. Rather than succumbing to the allure of binge-watching or endless scrolling, it’s important to engage in activities that facilitate emotional exploration and release. 

Prioritising emotional processing

To let go of our emotions good and bad we need to give our minds time and space so it can do its emotional work (which it does on its own, somewhat subconsciously).  One way the mind does this is through dreaming. The emotions you feel in dreaming are real.  The story and imagery of the dream is less relevant according to the current scientific literature than the emotions you experience in the dream. When we feel emotions we feel them for some time, and then they fade. Emotions you stored up during the day will come out in dreams.  Ask yourself “How did I feel during the dream?” The feelings in the dream are processed and then are gone.  You may want to write them down in a journal. (If by contrast we suppress negative emotions they may be stored up and come out as aggression). 

The role of dreaming in emotional release

Dreaming serves as a vital mechanism for emotional processing, allowing us to experience and release stored-up emotions. By prioritising quality sleep and ensuring adequate REM sleep, we can harness the power of dreaming to process emotions subconsciously. Avoiding substances and implementing relaxation techniques before bed can enhance the quality of sleep and promote emotional healing. 

Journaling as a tool for self-exploration

Journalling is known to be helpful.  There are a number of different ways and you may have to experiment a little to find the one you prefer.  Apart from writing about your dreams and reflecting on the day, you can also simply write about experiences you have had that were emotionally engaging for you (good or bad emotions). Or you can jot down thoughts you have had, or recap what happened this week.   

Seeking support and guidance

Another way to process emotions by allowing yourself space, time and exploration is to work with a therapist, or engage with life coaching or spirituality. It can feel safer to accept and experience an emotion with the support of another and having a regular appointment is a commitment to turn towards the emotions you are experiencing, rather than suppressing them. Turning to technology doesn’t let us emotionally heal because the mind doesn’t have this exploratory time, it is just distracted. 

Practical steps for self-care

  • Implementing simple yet effective self-care practices can significantly impact our emotional wellbeing. Here are some steps you can take to support yourself through vicarious trauma: 
  • Sleep more. Lowering the temperature of the room, using a weighted blanket and blockout curtains may help create a soothing and calming environment.  
  • Avoiding substances and technology before bedtime, going to bed earlier and waking up later, meditating to lower your cortisol levels and exercising to tire the body all contribute to a peaceful night’s sleep  
  • If you are tempted to pick up your phone during the day do something for 15 minutes before you do. For example; go for a walk, fold laundry, do some gardening – anything that combines physical activity with idle mental time 
  • Schedule a time once a day to consume news content rather than checking throughout the day, and consider listening to the news on the radio in preference to visual media 
  • If you are working in a clinical capacity, take your concerns to regular clinical supervision for support. 

How can we support others?

In times of vicarious trauma, offering support to others can make a world of difference in their emotional wellbeing. Here are some ways you can extend this support:  

  • Meet up in person where possible and venture outdoors    
  • Gifting a journal and pen, or art and craft supplies encourages creative expression and serves as a therapeutic outlet  
  • Signing up for pottery classes or yoga sessions offers opportunities for relaxation and self-care 
  • Reconnecting with nature or places of worship provides solace and grounding amidst turmoil 
  • Creating a safe space for open dialogue and emotional expression is invaluable  
  • If something is mentionable, it is manageable. Encouraging individuals to name their emotions and fostering comfortable sharing promotes resilience and strength. 

Support is available

Griefline supports help seekers to navigate feelings of grief and loss. The E.A.S.T. self-care approach offers a gentle path to reconnecting with yourself and fostering resilience. This resource as well as many others are available on the Griefline website.  

You can contact Griefline and speak with one of our trained, skilled and compassionate volunteers to speak about your experience or concerns in supporting someone who is grieving. Our helpline is open from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week (AEST/AEDT), or you can request a callback at a time that suits you.

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