What is “vicarious trauma”? And how can clinical psychology help?


What is “vicarious trauma”? And how can clinical psychology help?

As a professional working with people who may have mental health problems, you may have heard the term “vicarious trauma” before, but what does it really mean? In this article, we’ll explore the concept of vicarious trauma and how clinical psychology can help address it.

Understanding Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, is a term used to describe the emotional and psychological impact on the close others of individuals who have experienced trauma, including the professionals involved in their clinical care or legal case. For example, it is often experienced by mental health professionals, such as therapists and psychologists, who work closely with trauma survivors, but can also affect family members and even legal representatives, if they are dealing closely with a case that involved significant trauma to another person.

The Effects of Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma can have a significant impact, both personally and professionally. Some common symptoms include:

  • Emotional exhaustion and burnout
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
  • Feeling overwhelmed or numb
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in mood, such as irritability or anger
  • Increased anxiety or depression
  • Intrusive thoughts or images related to clients’ trauma
  • Difficulty setting boundaries with clients
  • Loss of empathy or compassion fatigue

The Difference Between Vicarious Trauma and Burnout

While vicarious trauma and burnout may share some similar symptoms, they are not the same. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by chronic stress, often related to work.

Vicarious trauma, on the other hand, is specifically related to those close to trauma survivors. It is important to recognise the difference between the two and address them accordingly.

What about the family members of my clients?

Vicarious trauma can affect the close family members of individuals who have experienced trauma. Family members may experience distress and emotional impact as a result of their loved one’s trauma. This can include feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and a sense of being overwhelmed. It is important to recognise and address the impact of vicarious trauma on family members and provide them with support and resources to cope with their own emotional well-being.

How Clinical Psychology Can Help

It is essential to prioritise your own mental health and well-being and consider how to help family members in order to effectively support your clients. Here are some ways that clinical psychology can help address and prevent vicarious trauma.

Self-Care and Boundaries

One of the most important ways to prevent vicarious trauma is through self-care and setting boundaries. For professionals, this can include taking breaks throughout the day, practicing mindfulness or meditation, and setting limits on the number of clients seen in a day.

Trauma Therapy

Trauma therapy can also be beneficial for people who have experienced vicarious trauma. This type of therapy can help process any unresolved emotions or trauma and provide tools for coping with the ongoing stress.

Who Can Help Address Vicarious Trauma?

While clinical psychologists can play a significant role in addressing and preventing vicarious trauma, it is important to recognise that they cannot do it alone. Other mental health professionals, such as social workers, and psychiatrists, can also provide support and guidance.


Vicarious trauma is a common experience for those who work with or are related to trauma survivors. It can have a significant impact on their mental health. However, through self-care and trauma therapy, clinical psychology can help address vicarious trauma and support the well-being of everyone affected by traumatic events.

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