Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, can be described as indirect exposure to a traumatic event through first-hand account or narrative of that event. Any person who has a significant relationship with a survivor of trauma may also experience secondary traumatization. People in the helping professions—counsellors and therapists, rescue workers, police officers, doctors, and lawyers—may be at risk of vicarious traumatization.

 Those who support and help those with traumatic experiences, often hear stories of traumatic experiences in the course of their support or work. At times, hearing these stories may overwhelm them and lead them to experience, to a lesser extent, the same feelings faced by the trauma survivors in their care. Vicarious trauma typically involves a shift in the world view of the helper. The helper’s beliefs about the world may be altered and/or damaged by repeated exposure to traumatic material, for example. 

What are some of the symptoms of vicarious trauma:

People respond to vicarious trauma in many ways. Some people are more affected than others and may experience a wider range of symptoms, which generally fall into one of five categories:

  • Emotional symptoms can include lasting feelings of grief, anxiety, or sadness. Some people may become irritable or angry, become distracted frequently, and/or experience changes in mood or sense of humor. A person might also begin to feel generally unsafe.
  • Behavioural symptoms might include isolation, increase in alcohol or substance consumption, altered eating habits, and difficulty sleeping. People experiencing behavioral symptoms of vicarious trauma may engage in risky behavior and avoid people or tasks, or they might find it difficult to separate work and personal life and may increase their workload.
  • Physiological symptoms, which affect physical well-being, can appear in the form of headaches, rashes, ulcers, or heartburn, among others.
  • Cognitive symptoms may take the form of cynicism and negativity or lead to difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions in daily life. A helping professional may also find it difficult to stop thinking about the trauma experienced by a person in their care, even when not at work.
  • Spiritual symptoms can include a loss of hope, a decreased sense of purpose, and feelings of disconnect from others and the world in general. People may lose sight of their life purpose or come to feel as if they are unworthy of love or do not deserve love.


Compassion fatigue, also known as second-hand shock and secondary stress reaction, describes a type of stress that results from helping or wanting to help those who are traumatized or under significant emotional duress.

 Although compassion fatigue is sometimes called  burnout, it is a slightly different concept. Unlike burnout, compassion fatigue is highly treatable and may be less predictable. The onset of compassion fatigue can be sudden, whereas burnout usually emerges over time. Additionally, severe cases of burnout sometimes require the person experiencing it to change jobs or occupations, but often measures can be taken to prevent or treat compassion fatigue before a change in work environment is required. It should also be noted that compassion fatigue can be a precursor or a symptom of other stressors.

What Are Some of the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

Compassion fatigue can take a physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional toll on people who experience it. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of self-contempt
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Poor job satisfaction

 Because symptoms of vicarious trauma & compassion fatigue can become debilitating if left untreated, it is recommended that people at risk, seek help, before symptoms become serious.

If you are caring or supporting those who experience trauma, it is extremely important to take care of yourself. It really is like the In Flight Safety Training we all see on airplanes, you must put your own oxygen mask on first, so that you are able to take care of others.

There is no shame in doing self care and in fact it is the responsible & accountable way to handle any traumatic situation, for yourself and those you wish to care for.