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Vicarious and Secondary Trauma

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Are you struggling with a distressing story you have heard or read? Trying to avoid thinking about it, but it keeps nagging at you-jumping into your head and clouding your thoughts? You may be experiencing Vicarious or Secondary Trauma.

Firstly, what is Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Trauma, and what’s the difference between the two?

Vicarious Trauma is when an individual who has read or heard various traumatic events is gradually impacted over time. They may experience hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, intrusive memories, changes to their beliefs about themselves or the world (i.e. “the world is not safe,” “my children are not safe,” “I am not safe,” “what if I am capable of such things and am a danger to others?”), difficulties sleeping, feeling on edge, apathy, excessive worry, and/or experiencing a variety of imagined distressing/anxiety provoking scenarios.
Secondary Trauma is when an individual hears or reads about one traumatic event and experiences symptoms of PTSD as if that trauma happened to them.

Historically, Vicarious and Secondary Trauma have been used exclusively in reference to individuals in the helping professions, such as therapists, who are frequently hearing various disclosures of trauma. However, in today’s world, this is no longer exclusive to therapists.

We are all witness to various videos, images, and stories of tragic events happening in both our communities and world. Not only are we hearing these stories, but we are also seeing them through images and videos. The average person is not trained in how to hear or witness trauma safely let alone recognize when they are experiencing Vicarious/Secondary Trauma.

How to Get Help

If you recognize that you or your child may be experiencing Vicarious or Secondary Trauma, please know that you do not have to carry this alone. It can feel scary, isolating, and painful sitting with these feelings. A trauma therapist/trauma-informed therapist can support you in naming your experience, developing skills to reduce the frequency/intensity of experienced distress, sharing and processing trauma narrative, and ultimately experiencing a reduction or cessation in feelings of distress associated with the story.

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