Introduction: Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma
“I knew nothing about self-care, secondary traumatization [vicarious trauma], or burnout…I think it is unfortunate that both the French and US NGO’s I worked for did not educate us more about such things. Instead, I wondered why I was so irritable and tired all the time, and dreaded hearing one more tragic story…. I saw too many of my fellow relief workers get totally burned out. I am certain that if they had been more reassured that their reactions were mostly normal, they would have known how to cope, rather than internalize their reactions, leading to depression. Being more knowledgeable can help enormously.“
Maria, working in Bosnia (Blaque-Belair, 2002, p. 201)
People decide to become humanitarian workers for many different reasons. Some come to this work because of a personal commitment to social change – perhaps to follow a spiritual path or to fulfill a calling. Some want adventure; others want to leave home. People usually come to humanitarian work expecting exciting challenges, meaningful work, and the chance to make a difference in the world. Few people really understand that it is likely that their lives will be changed forever by their experiences.
Humanitarian workers often assist people who have been victimized. They work in and with communities that have been devastated by natural forces or conflict. They themselves are sometimes the targets of violence. As a result of all these things, humanitarian workers are likely to experience lasting psychological and spiritual changes in the way that they see themselves and the world.
Some of these changes can be positive. Humanitarian workers often talk about how witnessing (and sometimes sharing in) the sufferings of people they are there to help has led to personal changes they appreciate – such as more compassion and gratitude, and a deeper understanding of what they value in their own lives and why.
However, some of the changes that can come from witnessing and experiencing suffering can be more problematic, leaving potentially permanent scars. Humanitarian workers also talk of how their work can sometimes leave them feeling numb, disconnected, isolated, overwhelmed, and depressed. Many talk of how their deepest spiritual beliefs have been challenged by their work. While some feel their faith (however they define that) has been strengthened by the work, some feel they lose their faith or spiritual grounding as a result of things they see as a humanitarian worker.
Most simply put, vicarious trauma can be thought of as the negative changes that happen to humanitarian workers over time as they witness and engage with other people’s suffering and need. This training module explores some of the strategies that can help you recognize, reduce, and transform the negative changes that come from vicarious trauma in your life.
If you are a humanitarian worker, it is important to understand the process of vicarious trauma, because it will almost certainly impact you in some way. But that’s not all. It will also impact your family, your organization, and the people you are working to help. Every humanitarian worker should understand and recognize vicarious trauma and know how to help reduce and address it. Knowledge (about the process of vicarious trauma) and action (healthy self-care and work habits) work together to protect your well-being. This means that you can remain happier, healthier, and more effective in your work. This benefits not only you, but your family, your colleagues, and those you assist.
This module aims to help you:
By the end of the module you should be able to answer questions like:
- Understand the process of vicarious trauma
- Recognize signs of vicarious trauma
- Learn strategies to help address vicarious trauma
- What is vicarious trauma?
- What are things that put you most at risk for vicarious trauma?
- What are common signs of vicarious trauma?
- What helps? How can you address vicarious trauma by taking care of yourself and working protectively?
- What can organizations and managers do to help?
This module is an introduction to the topic of vicarious trauma and humanitarian work. It provides an overview so that you can learn about this at your own pace. It also includes links and references to other resources on this topic. After you are finished, you may want to read other Headington Institute training modules. Additional online modules provided by the Headington Institute include:
- Understanding and Coping with Traumatic Stress (series introduction)
- Trauma and Critical Incident Care for Humanitarian Workers
- On the Road Again: Understanding and Coping with Travel Stress
- Supporting National Staff
- Stress and Stress Management for National Staff
- Additional modules on the topics of thriving, spirituality, and more…
Don’t try to rush through this material. You don’t have to read it all at once. We recommend you make time to think carefully about this and how it might apply to you. To help with that we have included “Think about” questions in boxes that look like this...
- Taking the time to answer these questions will help you get the most out of this module!
- You can answer these questions just by thinking about them, but we recommend you discuss your answers with other people you trust. Discussing this material with other people will probably help you think more deeply about it and learn from others.
- You can also write down your answers. Studies have shown that writing can be very good for physical and emotional health. It can also create a greater sense of commitment to follow through on addressing your own vicarious trauma. Finally, writing your answers will create a record for you that can help you set self-care goals and complete the action plan at the end of this module. Follow this link to download a list of all the reflection questions in this module with space for you to make personal notes.
At the end of the module complete the action plan in the last section. This will help you identify ways to get started with (or to continue) the ongoing work of supporting yourself and others as you undertake the life-changing work of humanitarian assistance.
Next: What is vicarious trauma?
The information contained in these modules is provided solely for educational purposes. The self-examination exercises and scales on this website are not intended to be used as diagnostic or treatment tools. Any concerns you might have about mental health issues should be discussed with a qualified mental health professional. If any of the material in this module raises concerns for you, please contact the Headington Institute staff or other appropriately qualified mental health professionals.