Vicarious trauma

Nurses and midwives are often at the frontline of working with people who are experiencing trauma. Being repeatedly exposed to trauma and not having appropriate ways to work through this can result in experiencing trauma symptoms yourself. The culmination of this over time equates to vicarious trauma.

If you are experiencing trauma at work and need to debrief or find some strategies for working through it call our confidential support line 24/7 on 1800 667 877.
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Secondary Traumatic Stress

Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. This may be from someone you care for, at handover or from colleagues.

Traumatic countertransference (where you unconsciously relate to patient or client you are looking after) is particularly common. Many health care workers recognize the death of a child or parent who has children about the same age as the health worker can trigger this response. Equally, someone you are caring for who reminds you of a parent or partner can evoke strong feelings – particularly if you are grieving the loss of that person.

Not everybody will identify these as distinct experiences. For example, you may find that you experience a bit of each of these at different times. What can be most helpful is to understand the impact so you and your workplace can prevent or minimize these impacts. Recognize how grief and loss is affecting you and what impact it is having on you professionally and personally is important. Stigma that experiencing feelings of loss and grief is not normal exists and can be a major barrier to good emotional wellbeing when you are experiencing grief or trauma.

What are the signs?

The signs of vicarious trauma include: 

  • invasive thoughts of the trauma of someone you have cared for 
  • feeling hypervigilant, numb, or a loss of empathy
  • frustration/fear/anxiety/irritability
  • disturbed sleep/nightmares/racing thoughts
  • problems managing personal boundaries e.g. taking on too much, working more overtime, inability to say no when tired or overstretched
  • taking on too great a sense of responsibility or feeling you need to overstep the boundaries of your role
  • difficulty leaving work /noticing you can never leave on time
  • loss of connection with self and others/loss of a sense of own identity
  • increased time alone/a sense of needing to withdraw from others
  • increased need to control elements in your life and
  • loss of pleasure in daily activities

The effects of vicarious trauma vary. For some people, there may be a wide range of signs and symptoms, while others may experience problems in one particular area of their lives.

As nurses and midwives, we experience all of the vulnerabilities of any other person. While you have been trained to have professional detachment your emotional response to another person’s trauma and death is part of what makes you human. Acknowledge this and the associated feelings and take the time to note how you feel and understand what this means to you. Self-compassion is important you care for others so make sure you care for yourself.

It is important to share how you are feeling

What can I do next?

Why not read our website content on self-care or listen to a podcast on self-care.

Our service provides free and confidential support 24/7, to nurses, midwives and students Australia wide. If you would like to speak to someone call 1800 667 877, or you can request support via email.

If you would like to know a bit more about the service before getting in contact — take a look through accessing support.

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