Sometimes also called “secondary traumatic stress,” Vicarious trauma is the idea that exposure to the stories of others’ experience of trauma, pain, or terror results in an “emotional residue” that can be equally as debilitating as experiencing the trauma first-hand. It makes so much sense, you see, when you watch someone you love, care for, or even work with relive or talk about an excruciating experience, their pain becomes palpable.
As they tell their story, you too encode it in terror. First, it is entirely understandable that this can happen to any of us who care deeply about or for another. Second, what becomes important in hearing the stories of others (especially if it’s your job to do this), is to stay as grounded as you can during your work (attend to your breathing, drink water often, bring yourself back to the present as often as you can). The same rules apply here when we are talking about trauma first-hand. It becomes very difficult to dictate who will encode another’s experience in terror because our own histories play such a role. The same response that helps, however, remains true for all of us.
Emotions are just that – emotions – they cannot (in and of themselves) hurt you. Talking about them, feeling them, while reminding yourself you are in a calm body, often helps even when you hear about or take on the intense and traumatic stories of other people. You, the listener, become some of the most important “walkers” for others navigating their stories. Looking after those of you doing this holy work is one of the most critical considerations as we navigate the mental health crisis today.