Transforming Vicarious Trauma: From Surviving to Thriving

Vicarious trauma is much more than merely a "stress or burnout reaction". It is a descriptive term used interchangeably with other clinical terms such as burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, secondary traumatic stress or insidious trauma. Experiencing vicarious trauma can lead to long-term alterations in one's personality because it alters perceptions on an ongoing basis in terms of how a person thinks about himself or herself, others and the world. The result is an increased risk of depression, anxiety, intense fatigue and an inability to concentrate and cope with daily routines.

It is important for all those working in the legal system to recognize the connection between symptoms they may be experiencing and the ways in which their daily work routines may contribute to these symptoms. In a 2002 presentation of his findings from interviewing 56 Canadian judges, Dr. Isaiah Zimmerman presented the stories of the "torment" that judges and lawyers experience in dealing with cases of sexual abuse, child maltreatment and domestic violence. He quoted one of his subjects: "The sheer volume of each day's work makes me fear I'm just processing people and have lost touch with my better self. Am I becoming indifferent to horror?"

Vicarious trauma is the result of the cumulative experience of repetitive exposure to a number of cases involving cruel and inhumane acts perpetrated by and toward people in our society. As such, it is part of a spectrum of symptoms and signs initially attributed to stress and burnout which can increase a person's vulnerability to experiencing the more serious signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma.

In the decade that has gone by since Dr. Zimmerman's research, a number of advances in neuroscience and brain research have validated our innate resilience and healing capacity. This capacity allows us to remain connected to our better selves and to thrive in spite of toxic occupational hazards, including vicarious trauma.

The ABCs of Addressing Vicarious Trauma

The 1996 research and initial identification of vicarious trauma by psychologists K. Saakvitne and L. Pearlman has been validated by more recent research. Their framework model of "Awareness, Balance and Connection" is upheld as a useful model for addressing and coping with this complex spectrum of challenging and often debilitating symptoms that are commonly attributed to burnout and compassion fatigue in the professional, organizational and personal realms of life.

  • Awareness is being fully attuned to our reactions and responses and our own needs, limits, emotions and coping resources.
  • Balance is being fully attuned to our ability to self-regulate and maintain both inner and outer balance and harmony among all our activities, especially work, play and rest. As we engage in our daily work tasks, it might be helpful to find the balance within our work that will allow us to work in a sustainable way in order to maximize our effectiveness without driving ourselves into burnout. Inner balance through mindful awareness practices and mindfulness-based stress reduction draw attention to all aspects of ourselves and allow for the recognition of areas where restorative action is required in the form of work-life balance.
  • Connection is made within ourselves through the inner balancing inherent in mindfulness techniques, connection with other people and connection to our spiritual capacities, in whatever form we choose. This offsets isolation and increases validation and hope. Maintaining friendships and nurturing relationships can be essential to offsetting feelings of isolation and despair. Developing community and connection with other colleagues who are experiencing similar distressing symptoms in dealing with difficult cases and situations is essential as both a preventive measure and one that assists in the restoration of inner resilience.

In addition to adopting the model outlined above, personal counselling and support can be very effective in treating vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue. Untreated burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma can often lead to destructive behaviours such as eating, drinking or smoking to excess. Some people may even find that they engage in self-injury or risk-taking behaviour.

If you are experiencing symptoms longer than a couple of weeks and they are affecting your mood, relationships and/or ability to function, contact the LAP for assistance. Here at the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia we can help you deal with distressing and ongoing symptoms effectively. We can also help you find additional resources as needed.