A study created by a student at the University of North Texas describes trauma as essentially the mind and body’s inability to adapt to an overwhelming, and sometimes life threatening event. Trauma can mimic effects of a life-long disease in that it causes symptoms ranging from hyperarousal, flash-backs, and even physical and mental sensations of numbness. Trauma is more often than not within the histories of people seeking assistance at mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, or living in homeless shelters throughout the nation.
There is no contesting that sexual assault is a traumatic experience for those who have experienced it, but what about those people who work with directly with this victim population? In what ways does trauma impact those people who choose to work with survivors of sexual violence as a part of their day to day routine? There is a growing body of literature about how professionals who have consistent exposure to survivors of violence can find themselves entangled in the mesh of sadness, cynicism, injustice, and hopelessness. Like ocean waves crashing along a shoreline, the eventual wear and tear workers experience through repeated exposure to the traumatic events of others begins to impact their behavior, health, and sense of self. This is often referred to as secondary trauma, or vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma can present itself in many different forms and, when overlooked, can begin to affect the everyday quality of life of individuals and those who live with them. One article by counseling.org states that symptoms can present as dreaming about, or losing sleep over patients, free floating anger or irritation, over or under-eating, or the feeling that they are not doing enough for their patients. Physically, it can manifest as exhaustion, talking to oneself, poor communication and poor relationships. Many of these symptoms may start slowly and build over time. Leading to a more difficult time identifying and preventing worsening severity of the signs.
A research paper completed by a masters student from the University of North Texas found that in addition to the high susceptibility of secondary trauma among trauma workers in general, workers who had a history of sexual assault or domestic violence themselves were significantly more likely to experience secondary trauma in the workplace. The study suggests people who go into the field to help others as a result of their past experiences may be at a higher risk of being re-traumatized. Interestingly, those who had experienced this trauma in the past and sought counseling following the event were less likely than their counterparts to encounter vicarious trauma and burnout. This not only suggests the importance of trauma work early on for survivors in effecting long term positive effects, but that these same individuals might be better equipped to help others in similar situations learn to sort through their grief.
Vicarious trauma is a by-product of the work people in the sexual assault response field do. Professionals and those who chose to help others who are recovering from sexual violence place themselves in a battlefield of emotional and physical suffering. Workers must be able to identify feelings and behaviors indicative of secondary trauma and have a plan to combat it. This may be in the form of continuous counseling to help process the feelings and emotions that naturally will occur in the process of working with survivors. It is vital that individuals placed to assist in the healing process of survivors be able to heal themselves in order to be effective in fostering well-being in the lives of individuals who have experienced immediate trauma.
Author: Natalie Thompson