Vicarious Trauma and the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

Vicarious trauma impacts those in HELPING Professions (Educators, Mental Health workers, Doctors, Nurses, and Empaths)!

Also known as compassion fatigue, vicarious, or secondary trauma, is a process through which one’s own experience becomes transformed through engagement with an individual’s trauma.

That is, trauma may not only impact the individual who experienced it but those around them. It is now understood that working with people in trauma — hearing their stories of hardship and supporting their recovery — has a far-reaching emotional effect on providers. Vicarious trauma affects the brain in much the same way that it affects the people we care for. The brain emits a fear response, releasing excessive cortisol and adrenaline that can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and release a flood of emotions.

Here are some symptoms of vicarious trauma:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances/Nightmares
  • Appetite changes
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response, “jumpiness”
  • Losing things/Clumsiness

Physical Symptoms

  • Panic symptoms – sweating, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness
  • Aches and pain
  • Weakened immune system

Cognitive symptoms

  • Lowered self-esteem and increased self-doubt
  • Trouble concentrating/Confusion/disorientation
  • Perfectionism
  • Racing thoughts
  • Repetitive images of the trauma

Emotional symptoms

  • Helplessness and powerlessness
  • Survivor guilt
  • Numbness
  • Oversensitivity
  • Emotional unpredictability
  • Fear/Anxiety
  • Sadness and/or depression

Social symptoms

  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Irritability and intolerance
  • Distrust
  • Projection of blame and rage
  • Change in parenting style (e.g., becoming overprotective)

Risk Factors for Compassion Fatigue:

  • Being new to the field
  • Having a history of personal trauma or burnout
  • Working long hours and/or have large caseloads
  • Having inadequate support systems

Preventing and Treating Vicarious Trauma:

  • Learn as much as you can. Responders are often totally unprepared to suffer from vicarious trauma.
  • Know that this is a normal reaction to doing work on traumatized persons.
  • Plan for safety with your colleagues so anyone who needs a ‘breather’ can take the needed time out. Become each other’s protectors.
  • Separate yourself. It is vital to remember and say to yourself, “This is not my pain. I am just holding it for awhile.” Release it.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle to ensure physical wellness (diet and exercise).
  • Get enough sleep to reset and restore your body
  • Keep track of your levels of “burnout” or “fatigue.” Make a record on when you experience these symptoms. In other words, collect data.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle to ensure physical wellness (diet and exercise).
  • Reengage in your hobbies no matter how little time: Painting, drawing, sculpting, knitting, cooking are all therapeutic activities.
  • Find the ‘humor’ in situations to alleviate stress and tension.
  • See a Counselor. Many times, vicarious trauma takes such a toll on our lives that we need to seek professional help.

Remember that you deserve this, and this will ultimately make you a better provider of care.


Posted on

May 31, 2023