Vicarious Trauma, Vicarious Resilience, & Systemic Oppression: The Responsibility of Organizations & Movements to Trauma Workers

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma occurs when bearing witness to others’ trauma results in trauma symptoms of your own. It can happen to any trauma worker (whether you are an attorney, caseworker, therapist, social worker, supervisor, director, CEO, policy analyst, teacher, judge, caregiver, medical professional, community leader, peer support specialist, or anyone else who works with survivors of trauma).

Trauma workers can experience a range of trauma symptoms as a result of their work, including but not limited to: nightmares, intrusive thoughts, recurrent memories, hypervigilance, dissociation, maladaptive coping mechanisms like substance abuse or other high-risk behaviors, avoidance, changes in mood, and changes in worldview.

Symptoms of vicarious trauma can manifest differently in each worker and in differing ways within the same worker. Essentially, vicarious trauma is when a trauma worker experiences any of the wide range of trauma symptoms that a survivor might, regardless of the worker’s own history of trauma. For example, for one person, you might have clear, coherent nightmares about your clients being in danger. For someone else- or for the same person on another night- their nightmares might center on a feeling of isolation, fear, loss, or something else they or their clients have experienced. One person may feel depressed, struggle to get out of bed, and/or feel unable to stop crying because of the trauma to which they have borne witness. For another, vicarious trauma may manifest as anxiety, numbness, anger, or irritability. For some trauma workers, unresolved and unprocessed vicarious trauma may even lead to suicidal ideation.

If discussed at all, vicarious trauma is commonly framed in the context of high staff turnover rates or lack of sustainability of a movement, but it is also about health and wellbeing. Vicarious trauma deeply impacts not only a staff member’s professional life but also their personal life. It is not something to minimize, overlook, or “brush under the rug”.

Intersectionality of Vicarious Trauma and Systemic Oppression

Although trauma workers can experience vicarious trauma regardless of their own histories of trauma, it can be especially heightened for those who do currently experience or have historically experienced personal trauma and/or abuse of power, whether it be sexual/physical/psychological/financial abuse, witnessing interpersonal/domestic violence or community violence, intergenerational trauma, civilian or military exposure to war, torture, human trafficking, natural disasters, police brutality, and/or trauma from systemic oppression and discrimination based on marginalized identities (racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia, ableism, etc.). If you have felt the pain of trauma and the power of surviving it, it often overlaps with witnessing the same pain and power in your clients’ lives.

According to a 2021 survey of over 50 staff from 11 Intimate Partner Violence organizations across the United States, 1 in 2 staff members identified as survivors. For the staff who are survivors of trauma, the staff who deal with racism, homophobia, and transphobia on a daily basis within and outside work, the staff who are still battling systems so they can secure their immigration status or that of their families, the staff who do not have equal rights themselves while they are out fighting for the rights of others, they are coping with both the personal trauma of their own oppression and the vicarious trauma of their work- and organizations and movements are often doing little to nothing to address that intersectionality.

We must do more to support our staff, especially those who have their own lived experiences of trauma and systemic oppression.

Vicarious Resilience

It is imperative that movements to end violence acknowledge the challenges and potential negative impact of trauma work on trauma workers, but there is also hope. In contrast to vicarious trauma, vicarious resilience is the opposite phenomenon- when bearing witness to others’ trauma makes you more resilient. The work can pull you down, but it can also lift you up.

Vicarious resilience can look like trauma workers who feel stronger as a result of seeing the strength of the clients, or trauma workers who feel they can better handle adversity in their own lives from the lessons they have learned and power they have observed from their clients. It can look like trauma workers who see their clients heal and feel empowered to pursue their own healing in their own safe spaces.

With respect to those with lived experiences of trauma and/or systemic oppression, it is possible that just as there may be heightened vulnerability to vicarious trauma, there might also be heightened potential for vicarious resilience. Further research should be conducted to explore the intersectionality of lived experiences and vicarious trauma and resilience.

Similar to how both post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth can co-exist for survivors of primary trauma, both vicarious trauma and vicarious resilience are common, expected, and can co-exist simultaneously for those who do trauma work. As colleagues, leaders, organizations, and movements, we must acknowledge, normalize, and hold space for both.

The Role of the Individual, Organization, and Movement

If you experience vicarious trauma, it does not mean you are weak. It most likely means you care deeply for your clients, and you lack the support you deserve in order to have a healthy work environment and healthy relationship to your work. If you experience vicarious resilience, it does not mean you are stronger or better than your colleagues. It most likely means you care deeply about your clients just as your colleagues do, but something is going right in those same internal and external work boundaries and expectations.

For many trauma workers, you may experience a combination of both vicarious trauma and resilience at any given time. Neither is a character trait, but a result of a combination of internal skills that can be learned and external organizational and movement level factors. Yes, we can all do the individual work and receive support for our vicarious trauma, but organizations and the larger movement are also responsible for fostering work environments that holistically encourage healing and sustainability- that includes for their staff.

In other words, just as survivors can gain power and control over their post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth, trauma workers, organizations, and movements can gain power and control over their vicarious trauma and vicarious resilience.

Why Movements Often Ignore Vicarious Trauma

Whether you have experienced trauma firsthand or vicariously or both, it may be tempting to ignore the pain of processing trauma and focus on the power of resilience. This also often happens on an organizational and movement level, where we hear statements like “vicarious trauma is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen,” or “if we just put our heads down and keep working, it will go away.” But we know that trauma, whether lived or vicarious, does not work that way. No matter how hard we pretend it does not exist or it never happened, our trauma symptoms present themselves, whether in obvious ways like flashbacks or intrusive thoughts or in more covert ways like chronic health issues or failing personal relationships.

From a clinical perspective, this response of denial, minimizing, and avoidance of vicarious trauma on the micro, macro, and mezzo level makes sense. Denial, minimizing, and avoidance are all coping mechanisms that often protect us from thoughts and feelings we are not ready or not equipped to experience. However, true healing includes the hard work of processing both the trauma and resilience in safe, inclusive spaces that prepare and support us, when we are ready.

From a social justice perspective, such denial, minimizing, and avoidance of vicarious trauma by leaders and organizations can also be seen as a defense mechanism by those who hold power and privilege in a movement and do not wish to acknowledge it. There is room to hold space for how ignoring vicarious trauma can be both a trauma response and a privileged response. Just as individuals can experience trauma and oppression in some ways while simultaneously holding power and privilege in other ways, organizations and movements can experience the same. First, we must do the work to acknowledge both, and then, we must do the work to address them.

Harms of Ignoring Vicarious Trauma

If we ignore the pain of vicarious trauma and the power of vicarious resilience, the cycle and chaos of trauma can become embedded in the culture of our organizations and movements. We see staff who are burning out, hospitalized for health and/or mental health, struggling silently, and feeling alone and abandoned. We see clients who recognize this pain of unresolved trauma in their advocates, as it is one they have known all too well. They start worrying about their advocates in spaces that were supposed to be the client’s one place that is truly theirs.

When a trauma worker does not have the space to process their vicarious trauma, it often bleeds into their clients’ healing spaces. Clients are perceptive, especially when it comes to trauma. If we as advocates are not well, our clients know and will often seek to protect us. This means clients will start filtering themselves and choosing not to disclose painful aspects of their experiences, all for fear of causing their advocates harm.

If organizations and movements fail to support trauma workers, they miss the opportunity to live out and model our missions to promote healing- and our clients notice.

Parallel Healing: Trauma Workers and Trauma Clients

How can we expect staff to support clients in their healing if our organizations are not supporting staff in their own healing? The process of supporting trauma workers parallels the same processes we use to support trauma survivors- especially as many folks are one and the same, whether or not they choose to disclose that in their workplace.

Whether for our clients or our staff, the principles of trauma-informed, healing-centered care remain. Organizations and movements must recognize that trauma exists on individual, interpersonal, familial, intergenerational, community, organizational, and systemic levels.

Organizational Recommendations

On an organizational level, holding space for both vicarious trauma and vicarious resilience for your staff entails long-term, multifaceted organizational culture change. It can look like:

  1. Offering access to affordable mental health and alternative healing services that are inclusive of and specific to all gender identities, gender expressions, sexualities, races, cultures, disabilities, and language

These are just a few examples, as organizational vicarious trauma and resilience work is a space that is ripe for creativity, co-creation, and collective healing. To learn more about recommendations for making movement jobs livable and sustainable, check out the Prioritizing Financial Security Report from FreeFrom, an organization committed to the wealth and financial security of all survivors, including staff.

Advocating at the intersection of gender-based violence and systemic oppression