Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Retraumatization
Both vicarious trauma and secondary trauma are indirect trauma. They occur when someone is a witness to another person’s trauma. Retraumatization is when something happens, and a person is reminded of their own personal trauma (more on this below).
The term “vicarious trauma” was coined by Pearlman & Saakvitne in 1995. It refers to an indirect trauma that can happen when a clinician/practitioner is constantly exposed, and a witness to other people’s trauma. It is different from burnout. Burnout happens when we don’t attend to our well-being through restoring and refueling. Burnout can stem from many different things including lack of boundaries, and attention to one’s well-being. However, vicarious trauma is different from burnout.
For example, a domestic violence worker (who hasn’t experienced domestic violence personally) might begin to question if any relationship can be safe, because the amount of violence they hear about from their clients is affecting their perception of safety in intimate relationships. Being a witness to other people’s trauma begins to affect their own worldview and causes a traumatic response within them.
Vicarious traumatization can also happen when someone is overexposed to detailed traumatic stories in other roles and capacities (for example, working in the criminal justice system, court workers, police officers, child and youth social workers, overwatching the news, etc.)
Like vicarious trauma, this occurs when someone supports someone who is experiencing a serious trauma. The trauma is not first-hand, although the person can develop PTSD-like (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms.
Vicarious traumatization happens slowly over time while secondary trauma happens quickly and unexpectedly.
Retraumatization occurs when someone is exposed to a situation that consciously or unconsciously triggers a memory of a previous personal trauma. The body reacts with a stress response that feels as intense as the original trauma.
One of the main goals of trauma-informed care is that we want to do as much as we can to prevent retraumatization for people we work with.
As a peer support worker, it is important to have good connections with your campus team so that you can debrief and get the support you need after a potentially triggering event occurs. Awareness of your triggers and stressors is important so you can avoid certain situations when possible. However, we aren’t always able to avoid triggers. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, but we can learn about and develop practices that will support your nervous system when you’ve been triggered.