What is Vicarious Traumatization and its Symptoms

Vicarious Traumatization

One thing that helping professionals like psychologists, first responders, and medical practitioners have in common is that they frequently interact, communicate, and develop relationships with trauma survivors. Consequently, these professionals are indirectly exposed to the trauma experienced by survivors—a phenomenon known as vicarious traumatization (American Counseling Association, n.d.).

As immigration evaluation therapists, we speak to clients every day who have undergone a range of different traumatic experiences. We are, therefore, vulnerable to experiencing this same phenomenon, which can risk having debilitating effects on both our personal and professional lives.

In this two-part blog series, we’ll outline what vicarious traumatization looks like and consider the steps you can take to guard your emotional and psychological health.

What is Vicarious Traumatization

Vicarious traumatization refers to indirect exposure to a traumatic event through a first-hand narrative told by a victim (Marriage & Marriage, 2005). The term is sometimes used interchangeably with the terms secondary traumatic stress and secondary victimization, and it occurs when therapists begin to feel similar negative and overwhelming feelings (to a lesser extent) as the trauma survivors in their care (GoodTherapy, 2016).

Vicarious traumatization and burnout are two phenomena that are often confused but characterized by important differences. While burnout is a form of emotional exhaustion that occurs in the work context, characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency (Maslach et al., 2001), its trigger is thought to be linked to work overload (i.e., prolonged exposure to work stress). Vicarious trauma, on the other hand, is triggered by hearing about the first-hand traumatic experiences of clients (Marriage & Marriage, 2005).

Vicarious traumatization can be experienced by any helping professional or mental health worker. However, immigration evaluation therapists are at particularly high risk. This is because much of the work we do involves listening to the stories of survivors of domestic abuse, survivors of human trafficking—who often suffer physical and/or psychological abuse—and asylum-seekers, who have often fled from violence and persecution.

The Symptoms of Vicarious Traumatization

Vicarious traumatization affects different therapists in different ways. It is essential to be aware of its signs so you can take the necessary steps to look after your physical and mental well-being.

Broadly, the symptoms of vicarious traumatization fall into five categories and may be experienced in different degrees and differing combinations (GoodTherapy, 2016):

Emotional symptoms

For example, prolonged experiences of sadness or anxiety, irritability, anger, inattention, mood changes, or feelings of insecurity.

Behavioral symptoms

For example, isolation, substance abuse, changes in eating habits, changes in sleeping habits, engagement in risky behaviors, avoidance of people or work, and difficulty in maintaining harmony between work and personal life.

Physiological symptoms

For example, headaches, rashes, stomach problems, or an overall deterioration in physical health.

Cognitive symptoms

For example, an increasingly negative worldview, lack of concentration, or inability to make decisions. In severe cases, a therapist may feel as though they cannot stop thinking about the trauma described by the client.

Spiritual symptoms

For example, a loss of hope or sense of purpose, disconnection from others, or decreased feelings of self-worth. When experiencing vicarious traumatization, a therapist may come to think of him/herself as unworthy of love and care.

As immigration evaluation therapists, it is essential that we remain aware of the symptoms of vicarious traumatization and take the necessary steps to address any we may find ourselves experiencing. Untreated vicarious traumatization can develop to produce worsening symptoms. It can harm our professional lives, compromising the quality and professionalism of the care we provide to our clients, and it can bleed into our personal lives and relationships.

The good news is that there is a range of steps we can take to guard ourselves against vicarious traumatization and get support should we begin to notice symptoms. We’ll address these in Part 2 of this post, so stay tuned, and I’ll see you back next week.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about conducting immigration evaluations, check out my free guides and video series.


American Counseling Association. (n.d.). Vicarious Trauma [Fact sheet].

GoodTherapy. (2016). Vicarious Trauma.

Marriage, S., & Marriage, K. (2005). Too many sad stories: Clinician stress and coping. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review, 14(4), 114-117.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397-422.

Cecilia Racine: Immigration Evaluation Therapist

I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.

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