Vicarious Trauma

By Ashley Barnes

What is vicarious trauma?

In understanding vicarious trauma, it is important to have knowledge about trauma itself. When many people think of and conceptualize trauma, they may immediately think of trauma as an event that occurs; for example, one may explain a near death experience as trauma. However, such situations are traumatic events. Trauma is a response to a deeply distressing or disturbing traumatic event; it often manifests through changes in psychological and physiological responses. 

Vicarious trauma, “also known as secondary trauma, can be described as indirect exposure to a traumatic event through first-hand account or narrative of that event” (Good Therapy, 2016). Vicarious trauma often involves a shift in someone’s worldview with repeated exposure to traumatic content, such as viewing the world as an inherently dangerous place or people as inherently untrustworthy.

Who is at risk?

Those in helping professions such as counselors, medical professionals, first responders, lawyers, police officers, and rescue workers are at particular risk of developing vicarious trauma. This is due to the nature of their work, which often involves witnessing traumatic events as well as observing the ways in which such events negatively impact who they work with. 

For example, counselors and therapists may help individuals process traumatic events such as a sexual assault or may help individuals safety plan when they are actively suicidal. In another example, first responders may be the first on the scene of a horrific car accident which resulted in death. Lawyers may be involved in seeking justice for a client who endured child abuse, piecing through disturbing and heartbreaking evidence. Any person who has a significant relationship with a survivor of trauma may also come to experience secondary traumatization.

Related Concepts.

Compassion fatigue and burnout are experiences that can be related to vicarious trauma; one can have vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout simultaneously.

According to Good Therapy, compassion fatigue is the “condition of emotional and physical fatigue that results when helpers feel compassion for those they help but do not have adequate time away from caring for others to refuel and care for themselves” (2016). Burnout is the experience of doing tedious or emotionally taxing work without adequate time and dedication to self-care (Good Therapy, 2016). 


As outlined by Good Therapy, some symptoms of vicarious trauma include:

  • “Emotional symptoms can include lasting feelings of grief, anxiety, or sadness. Some people may become irritable or angry, become distracted frequently, and/or experience changes in mood or sense of humor. A person might also begin to feel generally unsafe.”
  • “Behavioral symptoms might include isolation, increase in alcohol or substance consumption, altered eating habits, and difficulty sleeping. People experiencing behavioral symptoms of vicarious trauma may engage in risky behavior and avoid people or tasks, or they might find it difficult to separate work and personal life and may increase their workload.”
  • “Physiological symptoms, which affect physical well-being, can appear in the form of headaches, rashes, ulcers, or heartburn, among others.”
  • “Cognitive symptoms may take the form of cynicism and negativity or lead to difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions in daily life. A helping professional may also find it difficult to stop thinking about the trauma experienced by a person in their care, even when not at work.”
  • “Spiritual symptoms can include a loss of hope, a decreased sense of purpose, and feelings of disconnect from others and the world in general. People may lose sight of their life purpose or come to feel as if they are unworthy of love or do not deserve love” (Good Therapy, 2016). 

How to help.

If you start to experience these symptoms, it may be time to seek support. Seeking trauma-informed clinicians is essential in developing ways to better manage symptoms as they arise; if you are a therapist or counselor, it is especially important that you seek your own mental health support. Further, surrounding yourself with solid support groups of friends, family, and community can serve as protective factors against the psychological ramifications of vicarious trauma.

Another essential way to combat vicarious trauma and the often accompanying compassion fatigue and burnout is self-care. Self-care is anything we can do to take care of ourselves so we can stay physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally well. 

If you are seeking support from a mental health professional, please contact us at the Mental Health Center for sensitive, attentive care. The Mental Health Center is located in Los Angeles, situated in Cedars-Sinai.


Good Therapy. (2016). Vicarious trauma. Good Therapy. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from