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Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is a condition mostly affecting humanitarian workers who empathise with the plight of people who are hurting, and who feel a commitment or responsibility to help them.

Nurses, doctors, counsellors, trauma workers are at risk of vicarious trauma. Global media cover natural disasters, war and suffering round the clock these days, with continuous reporting from the front line of each new horror. With this saturation coverage many others will begin to suffer the trauma of daily exposure to the agonies and suffering in the world.

When the twin towers burned, then fell, millions across the globe watched in horror and despair. In Hurricane Katrina who can forget the open anguish of the displaced, bereaved population. Haiti, the BP oil spill, the Queensland and Pakistan floods. Civil war in Port-au-Prince, massacre in Libya broadcast 24/7, beamed into our homes as we sit and worry, and suffer as well. Our suffering nowhere near as great as those affected, but multiplied by every other disaster we are fed, night after night.

The Christchurch earthquake brought the image of two teens who had just been told their mother was unlikely to be rescued from a collapsed and smouldering building. The raw pain, overwhelming emotion and despair caught on film made its way round the world. We who could do nothing cried with the kids. Our pain burned, we were unable to ease their suffering at all, but somehow that image on our retinas made us feel we should try.

Now Japan. A horrendous earthquake and tsunami, live-coveraged on TV sets and monitors world wide. Compelling, compulsive, wall-to-wall reporting of the suffering, the suffering.Earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes and floods have always been a part of life on our small blue planet. What differs now is our increasing exposure to live feeds of traumatic events as they happen, in corners of the world our forebears would never have heard of, let alone grieved for.

One of the effects of vicarious trauma is to stop caring, to build protective barriers of indifference to the plight of others. Much better than this is to find ways to cope.

To address the effects of vicarious trauma we need to remember to get away from the trauma. Turn the TV off, or switch channels from the constant newscasts. Play with a child, pat a pet, dig in the garden, remember what we can control and what hurts are within our power to heal, and start there. Reassure our children and ourselves that there are also great joys and triumphs in the world, but that these are rarely given the coverage that tragedy gets.

Seek out joy, renewal and life, and always remember that it’s still a beautiful world.