Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

Andrew Stevens, TR Director of Field Operations

Team Rubicon volunteers 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, our volunteers 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. TR volunteers often talk about the espirit de corps and sense of missed community with other volunteers and 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. Disaster relief and humanitarian aid work can sometimes leave individuals feeling numb, disconnected, isolated, overwhelmed, and depressed. Many talk of how their deepest 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 emotional 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. The following links explore some of the strategies that can help you recognize, reduce, and transform the negative changes that come from vicarious trauma in your life.

As a Team Rubicon volunteer, 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, our organization, and the people you are working to help. Every Team Rubicon volunteer 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.

For further information on recognizing the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma, as well as the coping mechanisms for mitigating the emotional risks associated with disaster relief, please see the online self-study module produced by the Headington Institute at http://headington-institute.org/Default.aspx?tabid=2646.

We do not deploy into disaster zones without a plan, let’s not leave without one either.


2 Responses to “Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma”

  1. As veterans responding to disasters and working alongside local first-responders (police, fire, paramedics)… I wonder if Team Rubicon volunteers have responded in any way to the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT? Counselors and Chaplains from across the country have responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. They will be overwhelmed with offers of help and money. I would like to connect TR to the public discussion (and media): http://www.npr.org/2012/12/19/167649317/trauma-can-stay-with-first-responders-long-after-events-pass

  2. Vickea says:

    This article is SO on target. Effective self-care is crucial in order to continue to be effective.

    One very effective method is Emotional Freedom Techniques, known simply as EFT or “tapping”. It’s a method of using your fingertips to tap on acupressure points and is now being used by disaster response teams throughout the world. Nothing to carry and no drugs or equipment needed. The great thing about EFT is that it can be done alone or with a mate… just saying “Did you tap on it?” is another way of looking out for a buddy. Check it out at http://www.battletap.org/
    There is a heap of information there that may initially be confusing but please watch the video.

    The Battle Tap folk have also put all their videos on YouTube if you want to try EFT out for yourself, start with the tutorial at http://www.youtube.com/user/TapForLife

    The guy demonstrating the tapping is Olli, an Iraq vet whose own PTSD was resolved with EFT – his story can be read at http://www.stressproject.org/index.html – he is now a doctor and still in the military. You may find this a useful resource to pass on, over 3,000 veterans have been helped with their PTSD through the Veterans’ Stress Project.

    In response to the comment above, a prominent EFT provider, Nick Ortner, and his brother Alex both live in Newtown and mobilised money and help for their community. They brought in Dr Lori Leyden, who has been working with genocide survivors in Rwanda, to head up the EFT response. You can read their story at http://thetappingsolution.com/stress-and-trauma-relief/

    TR is doing great work, keep it up *thumbs up*

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