Friends, families, and partners of survivors of sexual abuse, as well as those who provide peer support, can struggle with the cumulative impact of being exposed to trauma and suffering. Learning how to recognize the effects and finding ways to reduce the impact helps to increase resiliency, and enables you to continue to provide empathetic and attentive support.

Understanding Trauma

“It’s a proven fact that we hold on to trauma. How can somebody who’s holding so much trauma be of service to someone else if they’re full up? You’ve got to empty the glass.”
- Mariska Hargitay

Professionals who regularly come in contact with trauma and suffering, including EMS workers, emergency room doctors, police, forensic examiners, social workers, and shelter workers, are increasingly recognizing the cumulative impact and toll that supporting survivors of trauma can take on their health and wellbeing.

Family, friends, and partners of survivors of sexual abuse can struggle with distressing feelings of anger, powerlessness, shock and grief. In addition, those who provide peer support, whether organized or informal, and who listen to multiple stories of abuse, may accumulate images, sounds, and details, that deplete them and negatively shift their world view. This is sometimes called vicarious trauma. Stories of abuse and suffering begin to fill us up, and make it hard to continue to support survivors. Some of the effects of taking on too much trauma include:

  • Burnout
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Secondary trauma, especially if you’re a survivor yourself. Trauma overload can sometimes trigger our own experiences
  • Feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed
  • Experiencing intrusive thoughts or nightmares
  • Increased fear for your own and your loved ones safety
  • Emotional numbing including the unhealthy use of substances.
  • Setting rigid boundaries to manage distressing feelings and images
  • Irritability or trouble listening attentively to someone’s story
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Increasingly negative world view

Sometimes the toll of vicarious trauma is slow and cumulative, and it can sneak up on people. All of a sudden you realize that you’re not OK. Dealing with the challenges of trauma in an intentional way is sometimes called trauma stewardship, which is about caring for self, and being present in a mindful way that enhances our ability to help others who are suffering.

Healing the healer is critical for individuals to be able to process the suffering and trauma, and facilitate their own healing. Effective strategies for mitigating vicarious trauma differ from person to person. Some suggestions, among others, include:

  • Maintaining a balance between work and personal life;
  • Peer consultation and debriefing to reduce the sense of isolation and increase feelings of effectiveness;
  • Professional treatment for unresolved issues and trauma, which may be triggered by working with another sexual abuse survivor;
  • Physical activity;
  • Creating clear boundaries between yourself and the survivor you are supporting;
  • Grounding exercises, yoga, meditation or energy therapy;
  • Limiting trauma by reducing the number of survivors you support;
  • Sense of humour and shared laughter;
  • Spending time in nature.

Recognizing when we’re feeling overwhelmed as a result of supporting a sexual abuse survivor, reducing stress, and taking care of ourselves, helps to increase your resiliency and enable you to continue to provide compassionate and attentive support.

For more information & resources

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others - Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk

Vicarious Trauma and Resilience - Berthold, S. Megan

Second-Hand Shock: Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma - Carpel Miller, Vicki & Ellie Izzo

Coping with Trauma: The Victim and the Helper - Watts, Rod & David J de L. Horne, Eds