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In last week’s blog post, we explored the phenomenon of vicarious traumatization, outlining its causes and symptoms in the work of immigration evaluation therapists.
To briefly recap, vicarious traumatization occurs when therapists (or any helping professionals) find themselves feeling overwhelmed by similar emotions as the trauma survivors in their care as a result of hearing their stories (Marriage & Marriage, 2005). The experience can manifest in a range of symptoms, including dysfunctional behaviors such as avoidance, emotional and physiological changes, or increasingly negative cognitions and worldview.
In this Part 2, we’ll outline some of the measures you can take to take care of yourself and reduce your risk of experiencing vicarious traumatization.
Guarding Against Vicarious Traumatization
Vicarious trauma is the cost of empathic engagement with those who have experienced trauma first-hand. It’s important to protect yourself against it and address it before its ripple effects become damaging and pervasive.
Here are recommendations from research and advisory bodies to help you:
Lean on Your Professional Networks
Keep connected with your formal and informal networks. By sharing our experiences with others doing the same work as us (keeping confidentiality in mind, of course), we can normalize our experiences and lean on one another for support. For example, you may consider setting up weekly coffee meetups with other therapists in your area or raise any concerns you may have with supervisors or peer support groups.
Get the Balance Right
Work-life balance is important in any line of work, but especially for therapists. When you’re on the job, try to avoid scheduling too many appointments back-to-back if you know they will be emotionally challenging. Instead, balance these with solitary work or other tasks that are less taxing.
When you’re at home, ensure that you regularly take time to psychologically detach and do activities that relax you or give you a sense of accomplishment in domains besides work. For example, you could journal, listen to music, or play a game.
Look After Your Body
Exercise is a proven pathway to emotional well-being (Bernstein & McNally, 1989), and it’s incredibly helpful to undo the effects of an emotionally intense day. So, be sure to schedule a combination of light and heavy exercise sessions into your week. Additionally, avoid working late into the evening and ensure you’re getting your recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
Research has found that therapists are especially at risk of experiencing social and emotional isolation as a result of the demands of their work. In fact, one study found that more than half of therapists experience a decrease in emotional investment with their own families upon commencing therapy with clients (Faber, 1983).
These findings point to the importance of scheduling time for connection with those we care about. Ensuring we maintain a connection with those in our personal lives is important to not only sustain these relationships, but support (e.g., from one’s family) has been shown to guard against work stress (Huebner, 1994) and may help protect you from vicarious traumatization.
If you find yourself struggling, put yourself in the client’s seat for a moment, and allow yourself the same care you would recommend to your clients. Therapy may serve as the safe space you need to properly examine your thoughts and feelings, and mitigate the risks of vicarious traumatization.
No-one can meet the needs of their clients when they are attempting to suppress their own. By becoming more aware of the signs of vicarious traumatization, we can not only look out for ourselves but look out for our colleagues, too.
If you’d like to learn more, there are several professional training courses available to help therapists and other helping professionals recognize the signs of vicarious trauma and mitigate the risks. If you’re interested, check out Creighton University’s four-hour training course or the one-day course offered by the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (CTRI).
For more resources, the United States Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) also offers a free toolkit for individuals and organizations as part of a large compendium of resources on vicarious traumatization.
Bernstein, E. E., & McNally, R. J. (2018). Exercise as a buffer against difficulties with emotion regulation: A pathway to emotional wellbeing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 109, 29-36.
Faber, B. (1983). Stress burnout in the human services profession. New York, NY: Pergamon.
Huebner, E. S. (1994). Relationships among demographics, social support, job satisfaction and burnout among school psychologists. School Psychology International, 15(2), 181-186.
Marriage, S., & Marriage, K. (2005). Too many sad stories: Clinician stress and coping. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review, 14(4), 114-117.
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 300 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in the various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.
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