Vicarious Trauma: How Much More Can We Take?

vicarious traumaAnother week, another tragedy. It’s hard to take it all in, let alone make any sense of it.

How does bad news affect us?

We can all be affected by vicarious trauma. That is the “one step removed” trauma that didn’t actually happen to us directly, but which still impacts us nonetheless.

Obviously, for the victims’ friends and relatives the effects are acute, but for onlookers (also from the news, social media and the press) these events have a profound cumulative effect.

When experiencing physical or emotional trauma first- or secondhand, our brains are affected by a perceived threat to well-being.

We are affected not only by the shock and outrage, but also by the emotional tidal wave that accompanies a significant traumatic event.

This is registered in the emotional, or limbic, part of our brain, and we then try to give it a narrative story with which to file it away. The problem is that our mental filing cabinets are already overflowing with traumatic stories.

For those of us able to feel empathy and compassion for our fellow man, we then feel compelled to act, to alleviate suffering, and to get things back to normal.

However, when we understandably feel impotent in the face of such huge national and global threats and traumatic events — whether natural or man-made, one-off or repeated — our distress is compounded, and we can lapse into a ‘freeze’ state of emotional overwhelm, inertia and collapse.

One way we try to minimize the threat to ourselves is to create distance from the event, by rationalizing it.

We might say things such as ‘oh well, that’s their culture.’ ‘At least it’s not happening here in my country.’ ‘Stuff happens.’

When an atrocity affects one of us or our tribe who happens to be in a foreign land, in the wrong place at the wrong time, then that coping mechanism of distancing fails to protect us from the more personal ‘that could have been me’ impact of the trauma.

A highly significant factor which determines how much we are affected by trauma is our previous exposure to traumatic events in childhood.

If we’ve had an abusive and traumatic childhood, we then defend ourselves from the impact of further traumas by our emotional shutdown.

We needed this form of psychological self-defense years ago for our emotional and physical survival, but it limits us as adults. We’ve become overly sensitive and vulnerable to further emotional overwhelm.

Early childhood traumas will have set us up to have an oversensitive amygdala (part of our limbic brain area), which will be rapidly activated whenever the brain makes a new association with a perceived threat, physical or emotional overwhelm, or a victim/oppressor dynamic.

What can we do?

  • We need downtime between major traumatic events so that we can regain our equilibrium and turn down the dial on our emotional reactivity.
  • We need to convince ourselves that we are sufficiently safe and protected, which of course we never really are. The best we can hope for is ‘I’m safe right now.’
  • Realize that it’s a balancing act between allowing ourselves to feel what we feel and still having our logical, rational brain functioning available to put things into context and perspective.
  • Look at the statistics and probability factors which can help to reassure us. Impartial objective education also helps us to make some sense out of a traumatic event.
  • If we can get a glimpse into the mindset and belief system of the perpetrators (no matter how bizarre and dysfunctional) we can at least see the ‘why’ behind their actions. Behaviors always have a reason, even if it’s hard to understand.
  • We can rate the impact of an event, and use our cognitive brain functions to recalibrate our emotional brain. This rating scale would be based upon both the personal impact of a traumatic event and the wider impact upon society. The higher the impact, the more we need to self-soothe, find our inner resilience, and get ourselves ready to do something that helps our fellow man in whatever way we can.
  • Share your feelings, particularly with close family and friends who will also be affected by the vicarious trauma.
  • Grief can immobilize us and delay processing our trauma, so it’s important to talk things through with a professional if you are finding that your vicarious trauma feels overwhelming, or is reactivating your own traumatic memories from the past.

The big challenge to us all is how to feel safe in this unsafe world, and to keep ourselves calm and on an even keel in the violent storms that we must all navigate our way through.

Andrea Lea Chase/Bigstock