What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary traumatic stress, is a term used to describe the profound shift in worldview that occurs in helping professionals, including law enforcement and trauma therapists when they work with customers who have experienced trauma.

This condition results from indirect exposure to trauma, reflecting the cumulative, transformative effect upon the helper caused by empathetic engagement with traumatized customers and their reports of traumatic experiences.

Vicarious trauma is a process, not an event, and it can affect anyone in the helping profession, including therapists, social workers, emergency medical personnel, and Content Moderators.

Distinguishing Vicarious Trauma from Other Stress Types

It’s vital to differentiate vicarious trauma from other types of work-related stress. While burnout and compassion fatigue are common among helping professionals, they are typically associated with overwork and lack of self-care. They can be alleviated with rest and time away from work.

Vicarious trauma, on the other hand, results from the empathic engagement with customers’ traumatic experiences and requires more specific interventions for its management.

What Causes Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma arises from deep empathetic engagement with the traumatic experiences of customers, altering professionals’ perceptions of the world and challenging their beliefs in justice, trust, and safety. Several factors contribute to the development of this indirect trauma, including:

  • Exposure to Customers’ Traumatic Experiences: Regularly hearing and imagining customers’ trauma narratives.
  • Personal History of Trauma: Previous traumatic events in a professional’s life can make them more prone to vicarious trauma.
  • High Levels of Empathy: A strong empathetic disposition may lead to a more profound internalization of customers’ trauma.
  • Ineffective Coping Strategies: Struggles with managing emotional responses effectively.
  • Workplace Environment: Lack of support or high-stress work conditions can exacerbate vicarious trauma.
  • Lack of Professional Boundaries: Maintaining emotional distance from customers’ experiences is problematic.
  • Limited Exposure to Positive Outcomes: Constant focus on traumatic stories without witnessing recovery or resilience.
  • Frequent Work with High-risk Populations: Regular interaction with customers who have experienced severe trauma.
  • Absence of Adequate Training: Insufficient preparation or education on handling traumatic content.
  • Insufficient Self-Care Practices: Neglecting personal wellness and self-care routines.
  • Cultural and Social Factors: Personal beliefs and societal norms influence traumatic information processing.
  • Emotional Resonance with Trauma: Identifying closely with the customer’s experiences or feelings.

What are the Effects of Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma symptoms can be profound and far-reaching. They can affect the professional’s psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being, as well as their relationships and work performance.

Psychological Effects of Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma can have significant psychological effects on individuals. This may include symptoms similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive thoughts, distressing nightmares, and emotional numbing, often accompanied by intrusive imagery.

These symptoms can be distressing and impact an individual’s overall mental well-being.

Physical Effects of Vicarious Trauma

The physical toll of vicarious trauma can manifest in various ways. Individuals may experience chronic fatigue, which can be debilitating and affect their daily functioning. Insomnia, often caused by the distressing nature of the content they’re exposed to, can further exacerbate their physical health.

Additionally, somatic complaints such as headaches and digestive issues are not uncommon.

Spiritual Effects of Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma can extend to the spiritual realm, leading to a loss of faith or a crisis of meaning. Witnessing the darker aspects of human behavior can challenge one’s beliefs and values, leaving one grappling with questions about humanity’s nature and place in the world.

Effects on Professional Relationships and Performance

The impact of vicarious trauma isn’t limited to personal well-being. It can spill over into an individual’s professional life, affecting their relationships and performance.

They may become more isolated, and it can be challenging to trust colleagues or customers. This isolation can hinder effective collaboration and teamwork and ultimately affect job satisfaction and performance.

Long-term Consequences for Professionals

Over time, the effects of vicarious trauma can become more pronounced. Professionals may struggle with maintaining appropriate boundaries with customers, becoming overly involved or, conversely, distancing themselves from those who have experienced trauma.

These patterns can lead to burnout, increased job turnover rates, and, in some cases, a complete change in career path as individuals seek to escape the ongoing toll of vicarious trauma.

Five Challenges Faced by Content Moderators

  • Content moderators are exposed to a wide range of traumatic material, which can be emotionally taxing and lead to symptoms of PTSD.
  • They often work in isolation, exacerbating the effects of vicarious trauma and leading to feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
  • Content moderators work under pressure with high workloads and strict performance metrics, contributing to stress and burnout.
  • Many lack the necessary training and support to manage the emotional impact of their work, potentially making them unaware of the risks of vicarious trauma or how to seek help if needed.
  • They may also need more resources for self-care and professional development, including time, money, and access to therapy.

How Can Vicarious Trauma Be Managed?

Managing vicarious trauma involves both individual and organizational strategies. Personal strategies include self-care, professional development, and therapy.

Self-care involves taking care of one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health, including exercise, meditation, and hobbies.

Role of Professional Development and Therapy

Professional development involves continuing education and supervision, which can help professionals stay up-to-date with the latest research and best practices and receive support and feedback on their work.

Therapy can be beneficial for professionals who are experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma. It can provide a safe space for them to process their experiences, learn coping strategies, and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their work.

Therapy can also help professionals explore their personal history of trauma, if applicable, and how it may be affecting their work.

What Organizational Strategies Help Manage Vicarious Trauma?

An organization can provide training on vicarious trauma, making moderators aware of its risks and symptoms and teaching them how to seek help if needed. This training may also include self-care and stress management strategies, such as mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and boundary setting.

Supervision and Support

An organization can offer supervision and support to help moderators manage the emotional impact of their work. This support can include regular check-ins, peer support groups, and access to mental health professionals for feedback and guidance.

Supportive Work Environment

Creating a supportive work environment is crucial. It should be one in which moderators feel valued and heard, and self-care is encouraged and modeled. This can involve providing flexible work schedules, promoting work-life balance, and fostering a culture of respect and appreciation.

Resources for Self-Care and Development

An organization can provide self-care and professional development resources, such as gym memberships, continuing education funds, and wellness programs. These resources empower Content Moderators to take care of themselves and prevent or mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma.

What Self-Care Strategies Are Effective Against Vicarious Trauma?

Effective strategies against vicarious trauma involve self-care, which encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. They include:

  • Physical self-care: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep.
  • Emotional self-care: Engaging in joyful activities, spending time with loved ones, and practicing mindfulness.
  • Spiritual self-care: Activities that provide a sense of meaning and purpose, such as volunteering, meditation, and prayer.

To make self-care effective, professionals should prioritize it, set boundaries, schedule self-care activities, and seek support through therapy and supervision.

These strategies not only protect professionals but also enable them to serve their customers better while preventing or mitigating the effects of vicarious trauma.

Managing Vicarious Trauma in Helping Professions

Vicarious trauma is a profound shift in worldview that occurs in helping professionals when they work with customers who have experienced trauma. It can affect the professional’s psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being, as well as their relationships and work performance.

However, it can be managed effectively with awareness, self-care, and organizational support.

Content moderators who review and remove harmful content from online platforms are particularly at risk of vicarious trauma. They face several challenges, including exposure to traumatic material, isolation, and pressure, and often lack the training and support needed to manage the emotional impact of their work.

Therefore, an organization must provide training, support, and resources for Content Moderators to help them manage the emotional impact of their work and prevent or mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma.

To find out more about how Zevo can support your content moderation teams, please get in touch today. 

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