How Systems Potentiate Vicarious Traumatization

“This work is very hard work. People talk about vicarious trauma; my sense is that actually I have not had to deal with a lot of vicarious trauma, because I think maybe vicarious trauma is a function of working for an institution that does not believe in what you are doing. The trauma is not dealing with a very difficult patient because that is what we do for a living. The trauma is to work for an organization that humiliates you, puts you down, and doesn’t value the very hard work that you do. And then you get harassed for working with very difficult patients; that breaks your heart. So you can only do this work in supportive networks and I am always looking for ways in which people can talk and connect with each other so we can form supportive networks for each other.”

Bessel van der Kolk at Trauma, Attachment, & Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, & Body in the Healing of Trauma workshop in Bloomington, MN April 17, 2015.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bessel van der Kolk present at a workshop in MN. During the course of the workshop, I was able to share with him the web address for MN Trauma Project in our hope that it could be a resource for supporting healing professionals in attendance. He did, in fact, end up sharing the information and then he made this statement about vicarious traumatization, which I have continued to reflect on ever since.

Trauma is sometimes defined as an experience or series of experiences in which the person’s resources, either internal or external, are overwhelmed, leaving them unable to comprehend, make sense of, or cope with their experience. While one element of the lingering impact of a potentially traumatic event is the experience itself, often times, it is the absence of an attuning, supportive other who is able to validate the difficulty of the experience, help dyadically calm the nervous system, and support the person in making sense of it that moves the experience from potentially traumatic to traumatic. Research shows that many of the people who are most impacted by traumatic events, particularly those people who are exposed to trauma as children, were either met with no response or were met with a response that furthered the sense of isolation and overwhelm initially experienced during the traumatic event(s).

All throughout my graduate training, I heard the admonishment from my professors to engage in adequate levels of self-care, so as to avoid burn out. From day one of my training as a mental health professional, I heard warnings of how much of a toll that the work of providing psychological support could take on the professional. However, as I have reflected on Dr. van der Kolk’s words over the past 18 months or so, and particularly sought to make sense of them in light of my own work experiences, I have realized the profound wisdom of his observation.

As the client begins to heal from trauma, inevitably one of the changes that enables and strengthens their healing is the rebuilding of relationships. The lingering impact of trauma frequently includes an increased sense of isolation and relational disconnect; the experience of healing often is hastened when there is a strong relational system that either exists in advance or is developed in the process. In a 2015 MN workshop with Bruce Perry (a leader in the study and treatment of trauma in children) he made the case that the strength of the relational network is one of the greatest buffers of subsequent traumatic symptoms.

In the Army, I have completed training in Traumatic Event Management, which is essentially a process of assessing and providing support for groups and individuals in the aftermath of a traumatic event. One of the powerful aspects of this model is the opportunity for a squad or company to gather together and provide each person the space to reflect on what they saw, heard, felt at the time of the event and to liste