Skip to main content

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
Cynicism
Anger
Disgust
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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Shot

I don't even know where to begin as my head is still spinning with the news I received today.  So I'm just going to put it out into the ether:

Entyvio (vedolizumab), which I started for my Crohn's disease about 6 months ago, did what no other approach has:  cleared my eosinophilic esophagitis. 

But wait, isn't Entyvio a drug for inflammatory bowel disease?  Yes.

Is Eosinophilic Esophagitis a type of inflammatory bowel disease?  Nope.

Are IBD and EoE related at all?  As far as we know today, no.  There are very few overlapping cases.

So WTF happened?

Without getting into the biomechanics of a drug that's way over my pay grade in medical understanding, my gastroenterologist had a theory that the way Entyvio works would block the cascade of eosinophils (a part of your immune system, a type of white blood cell) through it's magical way of selectively keeping my immune system from attacking my digestive tract.

She was fucking right.

Since being diagnosed with EoE in ear…

Bubbles

I've been thinking a lot about how we live in an era of infinite access to infinite information (thanks, internet tubes!) yet we still fall into many of the well-established psychological laws, if we can call them that, of human behavior.  Don't worry, this isn't going to be some drawn out post on social psychology. Wikipedia is great for that.

I want to talk about bubbles.  Information bubbles, that is. And how each one of us lives in one to some extent, no matter how educated or enlightened we see ourselves to be. And even if we know we live in said bubble, it takes being shown information that directly conflicts with how you think things are, or should be, and the result is you feel kinda ew - the technical term for "ew" being cognitive dissonance.

I live in a bubble.

In my bubble is the world of academic medicine, academic health psychology, and a circle of psychologists dedicated to people living with chronic digestive illness.  I live in Chicago, a major me…

Everyone Can Fall Down the Rabbit Hole

A few months ago my 3 year old son uttered the words, "I hate you, mommy."  It was after I yelled at him for doing something wrong, which I've long forgotten what exactly the source of our exchange was. But I certainly can remember those words. I can hear them in my head if my brain decides, at random moments, to replay them.

My intellectual, clinical psychologist brain can explain this for days. He's 3, he doesn't know what he's saying, he learned the word hate somewhere else, presumably at preschool, as I discourage its free use in our house. He's using it to express his anger not his true feelings toward me because once he self-regulates (psychobabble for calms the F down) he tells me he loves me.  Blah blah blah.

Regardless of all that knowledge and shit I have from too much education, those words destroy me emotionally.  Maybe they hit me harder because of my profession because my head goes to all the subsequent pathology he'll surely go on to de…