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Vicarious Trauma

A lot has been said, and will continue to be said, about the tragic events in Newtown, CT on Friday.  The debate about gun control, mental health, violence, and the general pathology of our current society will hopefully rage for some time and lead to some meaningful changes in all of these areas.

Something needs to change.  I don't claim to have all of the answers.

This national tragedy has been particularly hard on me.  I'm not saying that previous mass shootings were any less ghastly, but they didn't penetrate my psyche like this one has.  Maybe it's because of the ages of the victims, and that I have a young daughter.  I really don't know.  But as has been said on the news, something's different about this one.

When I went through training to become a psychologist, we learn about something called vicarious trauma.  Basically hearing horrific stories from your clients wears on you, and it's vital to being a good therapist that you're aware of this and pay attention to symptoms of vicarious trauma.  Symptoms can parallel those associated with actual traumatic experiences, but are usually less intense and include:

Social withdrawal
Difficulty concentrating
Feeling numb
Mood swings
Sleep problems
Loss of meaning and hope

This type of trauma isn't unique to psychologists, and can happen to anyone who hears about traumatic events that happen to those you care about.  I'd bet there's a lot of vicarious trauma floating around in America right now.

So what can be done?  There are a few tricks of the trade that we use to ward of vicarious trauma that may be helpful if you're feeling some of the above, whether it's because of last Friday's shooting or other exposures to trauma toward loved ones in your life:

  • Stay connected with family and friends.  Social withdrawal is not your friend, here.
  • Slow down and focus on the little things. Sounds cliche, but the research on mindfulness supports this as an effective coping strategy in improving our mental well-being.
  • Take time to reflect, either through writing, reading, or conversation.  Talking about traumatic events helps our brains process them appropriately and reduces the risk of long-term conditions like PTSD.
  • Identify and challenge your cynical beliefs.  Do they hold any water?   Even if they do, do they serve any purpose?
  • Channel your energy into something positive, whether it's learning a new skill, volunteering, or giving back to the community some way.

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