Vicarious Trauma: A Secondary Distress for COVID-19 Medical Frontliners

vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma is the negative emotional response to listening to another person’s distressing experiences. A person goes through this particular trauma after sympathizing and hearing out someone else’s stories of depression, pain, and sadness. Vicarious trauma is quite common with workers in the healthcare industry, specifically psychiatrists and surgeons, as they are much exposed to many emotional disclosures and morbid experiences. In order to address vicarious trauma within individuals and communities, it is vital to remove the stigmas on mental health, acknowledge the differences in emotional capacity among people, and treat the condition as an illness that requires vicarious trauma treatment. 

As vicarious trauma is often disregarded, many Americans are suffering from it unknowingly. Despite originating from the negative experiences of other people, the seemingly ‘second-hand trauma’ continues to hurt individuals mentally and emotionally, even after a long time since the trauma stories were told. It can also give them a difficult time sleeping at night, and incite anxiety attacks, with the fear that the negative events can also happen in the listener’s life. In addition, in this time of COVID-19, even ordinary members of the community may experience this more commonly due to the anxiety and stressful circumstances of the pandemic.


Medical Frontliners with Vicarious Trauma During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has not just affected every state in the United States, but also the entire world. It has brought stress, trauma, and even a sense of hopelessness to medical frontliners serving the country. With the constant filling up of hospitals and emergency rooms with COVID cases, frontliners often endure physical exhaustion, mental stress, and emotional breakdowns. Managing pains and deaths of their patients, as well as sympathizing with bereaved family members have become a part of their duty.

what is vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue

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It is often hard to imagine what frontliners see during their hours of service. However, to give you a glimpse, doctors and nurses treat patients who have a hard time breathing, as fluids have penetrated the person’s air sacs in the lungs. Frontliners are also forced to intubate patients, as some would describe the experience of having severe COVID, similar to drowning in water.  It may be uncomfortable to visualize our fellow Americans dying in this manner, but this is the reality faced by the medical workforce every day in the pandemic.

These instances make medical frontliners more prone to vicarious or secondary trauma. Their daily exposure to negative circumstances accumulates and turns into their own emotional baggage. This is harmful to them physically and mentally, as the trauma can eventually take a toll on their capacity to perform daily functions. Even if we can say that mental and emotional stress subsides over time, preventing vicarious trauma is necessary for keeping one safe and well.


Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, and Compassion fatigue

Vicarious trauma is related to burnout and compassion fatigue. While burnout is the state of exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, compassion fatigue is the diminished capacity to empathize with other people. This happens when a person becomes used to hearing or seeing the painful experiences of others. In some way, it is a form of resistance towards the feeling of compassion, which builds up due to the excessive exposure to emotionally draining moments and narratives.

These three mental and emotional conditions come hand in hand. For example, the failure to treat vicarious trauma can cause compassion fatigue and burnout. If you are a medical professional, a nurse or a psychiatrist, this situation would not be beneficial both for yourself and the people you are rendering service for. Recovering from burnout is essential in stopping a person from becoming non-functioning, apathetic, and detached.


What are the Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is often recognized as insignificant, since the person experiencing it, or other people, will think that there is no direct experience that may have created a trauma. However, the disbelief towards secondary trauma is what causes people to sometimes feel emotionally drained and mentally exhausted without knowing the reason why. Fortunately, healthcare professionals themselves can undergo vicarious trauma self-assessment to detect signs and symptoms ahead of time. Below are the symptoms of vicarious or secondary trauma:

  • Burnout and compassion fatigue
  • Being cynical and pessimistic more frequently
  • Enduring anxiety and sadness towards a patient’s experiences
  • Insomnia and imagination of negative happenings
  • Overinvolvement with a person’s emotions, family, and tragic moments
  • Apathetic and detached with the sadness of others
  • Difficulty in work and performing daily functions

If you are working with COVID patients or survivors of traumatic incidents, and you are experiencing some of these symptoms, it may indicate vicarious trauma.


Ways to Manage your Trauma During Shifts


preventing vicarious trauma

Experiencing vicarious trauma may be unavoidable due to job circumstances or unfortunate events. People may need to cope with it, despite not having sufficient knowledge on dealing with mental stress. However, there are ways to manage vicarious trauma, especially for frontliners and psychiatrists in the time of pandemic. The following are ways to cope after knowing that you may have secondary trauma:

  • Don’t ignore your feelings. Acknowledging your emotions allows you to process negative ideas quicker. Being accustomed to various types of feelings can also make you more resilient mentally. 
  • Talk with coworkers you are comfortable with. The immediate people around you are also the initial support system you have access to. However, if you find it difficult to open up to them, you may do it with your family after the shift instead.
  • Take breaks when necessary. When mental stress bursts with physical fatigue, you may experience total burnout and an inability to function. Short breaks already allow your mind and muscles to rest. 
  • Eat healthy meals, and have a nutritious diet. As cliche as it may sound, nutritious foods boost the brain’s cognitive processes and overall activity, which include emotional and mental capacities.
  • Exercise daily. You can never go wrong with exercise. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, regular exercise boosts mental health.
  • Sleep early before your shift. Sleeping early may give you a fresh boost for another day at work. However, if you have insomnia due to vicarious trauma, you may need to seek professional help as soon as possible.
  • Seek professional help. There is no shame in seeking help because of secondary trauma. Healthcare professionals acknowledge the condition’s need for treatment.

If you still struggle despite using the first six coping strategies, maybe it is time to find treatment options.


Treatment Options for Trauma


vicarious trauma self assessment

Vicarious trauma treatment comes in various forms. From support groups to therapies, there are numerous and accessible ways to address this. Treatment just depends on what fits a person’s preferences and needs. Below are some of the prominent programs for trauma.

If you are a healthcare professional, knowing your treatment options is a big step towards recovery from vicarious trauma. It is important to keep in mind that emotional stress, no matter how small, must not be disregarded. If you are in a profession that takes care of others, it is necessary also to take care of yourself. To know the best fitting treatment option you may have to approach your trusted treatment center for an assessment.

At Roots Through Recovery, we provide personalized treatment. Our experienced clinicians do not focus solely on treatment, but also on providing ways to cope physically and emotionally. We believe that everyone deserves a productive and happy life.

If you or someone you know is seeking vicarious trauma treatment, get in touch with us today. Visit us at 3939 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 102, Long Beach, CA 90807, or give us a call at 866-766-8776 to get started.

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