8/3/20234 min read



Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional, psychological, and physical distress that individuals experience as a result of indirectly witnessing or hearing about the traumatic experiences of others. It typically affects individuals who regularly work with trauma survivors, such as healthcare professionals, first responders, therapists, social workers, and journalists. These individuals may become overwhelmed by the stories they hear or the images they witness, leading to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, anxiety, depression, and a decrease in overall well-being. Vicarious trauma is important to recognize and address in individuals and organizations to prevent burnout and promote self-care.


Secondary trauma, also known as compassion fatigue, is a type of trauma that occurs as a result of exposure to the trauma experiences of others. It refers to the negative emotional and psychological impact that individuals, often professionals, experience when they listen to or witness the trauma stories of other people. Secondary trauma can occur in individuals who work closely with trauma survivors, such as therapists, social workers, and caregivers.

Similar to vicarious trauma, individuals experiencing secondary trauma may develop symptoms resembling PTSD, including intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness, avoidance, hypervigilance, and decreased ability to feel empathy. They may also experience physical symptoms like headaches, difficulty sleeping, and changes in appetite.


The key distinction between vicarious trauma and secondary trauma is that vicarious trauma refers specifically to the indirect witnessing of trauma, whereas secondary trauma encompasses a broader range of emotional and psychological distress resulting from exposure to trauma-related material.

Vicarious trauma and secondary trauma are closely related but distinct concepts. Here are the main differences:

1. Definition:

Vicarious trauma refers to the emotional and psychological changes that happen in an individual due to their empathetic engagement with the trauma experiences of others. It involves a deep emotional identification with the trauma survivor and can affect anyone who hears or listens to traumatic stories. Secondary trauma, on the other hand, refers to the negative impact experienced as a result of repeated exposure to trauma stories or traumatic situations. It is commonly seen in professionals who work closely with trauma survivors and is a specific type of secondary stress or fatigue.

2. Source of the Trauma:

Vicarious trauma is associated with witnessing or hearing about traumatic events experienced by others, while secondary trauma is specifically linked to exposure to trauma-related material or working directly with trauma survivors.

3. Scope of Impact:

Vicarious trauma can cause individuals to experience significant changes in their worldview, self-identity, and belief systems. It may result in a broader existential crisis and shift in their perception of safety and trust in the world. Secondary trauma, however, tends to have a narrower impact and is more focused on the emotional and psychological effects related to the professional's work with trauma survivors.

4. Duration and Intensity:

Vicarious trauma is often considered a cumulative, long-term response to repeated exposure to trauma stories, and its effects may be more gradual and cumulative over time. Secondary trauma, on the other hand, can occur after a single exposure or a shorter period of time working with trauma survivors, and its impact can be more immediate and intense.

Both vicarious trauma and secondary trauma are significant challenges that can impact professionals in helping fields. It is crucial for individuals in these roles to be aware of these phenomena and take appropriate self-care measures to prevent or mitigate their effects.


Healing from vicarious trauma and secondary trauma requires a multifaceted approach that prioritizes self-care and well-being. Here are some strategies that can be helpful:

1. Self-awareness:

Recognize and acknowledge your own reactions and emotions related to the trauma content you are exposed to. Developing self-awareness allows you to identify when you may be experiencing vicarious or secondary trauma.

2. Self-care practices:

Engage in activities that promote your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. This can include exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness or meditation, setting boundaries, and engaging in hobbies or activities that bring you joy.

3. Seek support:

Connect with others who understand and empathize with your experiences. This can be in the form of colleagues, support groups, or therapy. Sharing your feelings and experiences in a safe and supportive environment can help alleviate the emotional burden.

4. Develop coping strategies:

Cultivate healthy coping mechanisms to manage the stress and emotions associated with vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. This can include activities like journaling, art therapy, deep breathing exercises, or engaging in relaxation techniques.

5. Set boundaries:

Establish clear boundaries between your professional life and personal life. Establish limits on the amount of exposure you have to trauma stories or situations and develop strategies to detach emotionally from the content when necessary.

6. Take breaks and practice self-care during work:

Incorporate regular breaks into your work schedule and engage in self-care practices throughout the day. This can include brief moments of mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, or engaging in activities that help you relax and recharge.

7. Seek supervision and guidance:

If you are working in a field where exposure to trauma is common, consider seeking supervision or guidance from an experienced professional. Supervision can provide a supportive space to process difficult cases, learn from others' experiences, and receive guidance on coping strategies.

Remember, healing from vicarious trauma and secondary trauma is an ongoing process and may require individualized approaches. It's important to prioritize your well-being and seek professional help if needed.