Individuals who regularly come in contact with trauma and suffering, including those who provide peer support to survivors of sexual abuse and violence, may begin to feel the cumulative impact. This takes a toll, and reduces your ability to continue to be emotionally present for the people you are trying to help and support.
It’s common for people who have worked in helping capacities to experience burn out. However, this is different than the vicarious trauma that you may experience from listening to stories of abuse. Survivors of trauma are more susceptible to feeling the impacts of this kind of work. Vicarious trauma may be immediate, it can impact your view of the world, and can make you feel out of control.
The following are some things to ask yourself to determine if trauma exposure is having a negative impact on you:
- Are your relationships with friends, family, children, or partners changing for the worse?
- Do you find yourself irritable, anxious, agitated, cynical or impatient more frequently than usual?
- Are you avoiding or getting anxious about engaging with the survivors that you are supporting?
- Are you experiencing mood swings and do you sometimes feel emotionally out of control?
- Do you feel flat, sad, lethargic, numb, or disconnected like you’re spacing out from things around you?
- Do you feel powerless and overwhelmed, and have trouble doing the things you used to do?
- Do you feel run down, or are you getting sick more often than usual?
- Do you feel unsafe or anxious for your safety, or that of those close to you?
- Do you self-soothe or numb yourself by mindless eating, smoking, or through alcohol or drugs?
- Do you feel hopeless, and that life has no meaning or value?
- Do you avoid activities that used to be pleasurable?
- Do you see the world as a dangerous and cruel place?
- Are you having nightmares or trouble sleeping?
- Do you have intrusive thoughts and images that are upsetting to you?
- Are you shallow breathing and carrying a lot of tension in your body?
- Are you trying to control the lives of others around you?
- Are you having trouble with triggers that you used to be able to manage?
If you answered yes to some, or many, of these questions then you may be experiencing vicarious trauma. One of the most obvious signs of negative trauma exposure is a shift in your world view. This happens when the helper begins to see the world through the eyes of the people they are helping. The result is that individuals supporting survivors begin to feel helpless, hopeless and powerless. They also begin to feel unsafe and alienated from others, and their assumptions about the essential goodness of the world may be shattered, along with their faith and basic beliefs.
Self-care is crucial, in addition to the ability to debrief with another peer supporter, family, friend, therapist, or spiritual leader. Sometimes people have to step away for a while until they feel replenished and able to effectively support another person. That’s ok. There may be other friends, family or professionals who can step in to help the survivor. And there is no shame in acknowledging that you’re having trouble coping. Everyone who works with trauma needs help sometimes. Recognizing that you’re feeling overwhelmed and reaching out for help is a way of honouring ourselves and our needs. It’s also a healthy way of modelling to survivors how to ask for and accept help when they need it most. We are walking this journey together, learning and growing as we go. Accepting our vulnerability is an important part of our own growth and empowerment.