At times, it can feel nearly impossible to find the motivation to keep showing up to work week after week, especially after working long hours or dealing with crises and looming deadlines. As health care professionals (defined as anyone caring for the mental and physical health of others), we may often feel overwhelmed with caring for patients who have experienced violence, pain, and trauma. Over time, this can dramatically alter the way we perceive and understand ourselves, others, and the world. The clinical term for this phenomena is vicarious trauma (VT).
What is Vicarious Trauma? Vicarious trauma (VT) occurs when there is a change in a health care professional’s physical and emotional functioning after working with patients who have experienced stressful or traumatic events. Trauma can be defined as a deeply distressing event that one directly witnesses or hears about. Potentially traumatic events include natural disasters, interpersonal violence, traumatic injury, war, divorce, and childhood abuse.
Is VT the same thing as Burnout?
VT and burnout are very similar and yet different in important ways. VT develops as a result of empathically caring for others, meaning that while healthcare workers, first responders, and other healers can develop VT, it would be very unlikely for an accountant or car dealer. However, anyone, CPAs and car dealers alike, can burnout. When we develop burnout, we lose satisfaction with our job, we feel emotionally exhausted, and feel like we’ve lost our sense of self at work and home.
How Do I Know if I Have VT?
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of VT fall under these 5 categories:
Cognitive: Intrusive thoughts, sounds or images about the trauma an individual has been exposed to; difficulty concentrating; constantly thinking about survivors outside of work; becoming more cynical or negative in one’s thinking patterns.
Physiological: Ulcers, headaches, chronic pain, stomach aches, sweating, or racing heart when reminded of a trauma
Spiritual: Loss of hope; perceiving others as bad or evil; losing sight of the good in humanity; difficulty trusting our own beliefs
Behavioral: Hair-trigger temper; isolation; using unhelpful coping strategies to manage difficult emotions (drinking, substance use, gambling); need to control everything and everyone
Emotional: Losing touch with one’s own self-worth; isolating from loved ones; feeling overwhelmed or emotionally restricted
What If I Have VT?
As a psychologist, I have worked in integrated care settings for over 5 years. I have been embedded in primary care clinics, hospitals and Level 1 Trauma Centers, and surgical outpatient clinics. Through my work with patients in these settings, I also had constant contact with providers, nurses, therapists, and other healthcare team members. This gave me a unique perspective on healthcare culture, especially the “suck it up culture” common to medicine and first responders. The trust I built with my healthcare colleagues meant it was not uncommon for them to reach out to me when they were dealing with a very difficult case or began to notice how their work was affecting their personal life. This inspired me to develop trainings, which have been delivered to hundreds of professionals, to help them identify and address VT and burnout. I also co-developed a hospital wide wellness program at a Level 1 Trauma Center to serve the unique needs of the healthcare team.
My years of integrated care experience, didactic training, and program development to meet the wellness needs of healthcare team members make me the ideal psychologist to support you in addressing the unavoidable hazards of serving as a healer for our community. To hear me discuss VT and healthcare providers in more detail, check out my interview with Jennifer Christian on her podcast, Self-Care Houston.