When we think of traumatic events we usually think of horrific acts of violence, however, trauma is something we all experience at different levels. Regardless of whether these events are directly affecting you or if you are watching them happen to others, we are all impacted and shaped by trauma.
Watching trauma happen to others is called vicarious trauma. For example, everyone who watched the events of 9-11 experienced vicarious trauma. Globally, vicarious trauma has been impacting human beings at unprecedented levels since the mid-20th century when media technologies began bringing live images of war into our daily lives. Vicarious trauma is a factor causing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to shift from being an individual pathology into a global social syndrome.
Trauma can be defined as any event that happens to a person against their will that is perceived by them to be violence, which is what makes the word trauma so big. It encompasses obvious sources of violence that cause trauma like rape, child abuse, war, domestic violence, automobile accidents, or natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina. It also encompasses subtle sources of violence that cause trauma like losing sleep because the neighbor lets his dog bark all night, getting flipped off, or having a conversation interrupted by someone choosing to answer their cell phone.
The levels of violence resulting in traumatic experience range from mild, to moderate, to severe. This spectrum helps illustrate the fact that traumatic experiences are not encapsulated events fixed in time. Each traumatic event remains an embodied, dynamic force that accumulates energy over time. Added to that dynamic, each traumatic event is cumulative. In other words, unresolved or repetitive mild level traumas become moderate level traumas, and unresolved or repetitive moderate level traumas become severe level traumas.
The cumulative traumatic impact of this spectrum of violence is what makes vicarious trauma such an insidious and pervasive problem in our global community. Human beings are hurt by experiencing secondary trauma because we are also hard-wired to feel compassion for others. That is why vicarious trauma is also known as compassion fatigue. But the most common name for vicarious trauma is burnout. The world community is currently overwhelmed with so many sources of severe level violence causing trauma (i.e. wars, disastrous weather, financial collapse) and our human services workers are burning out at epidemic rates. This means that those who work to help traumatized populations are becoming a traumatized population.
Whether the sources of violence have been obvious, like war or criminal assault, or subtle, like discourteous behaviors in a relationship the results of trauma can be observed in addictions, depressions, failed intimacy, social isolation, suicide, unfulfilled potential, frustrated spirituality, sexual dysfunction, compulsive behaviors and chronic health problems. If you are feeling traumatized on any level, be good to yourself, seek a professional who specializes in trauma resolution.
- Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Routledge.
- Pearlman, L. A., McCann, L. (1990). Vicarious traumatization: A framework forunderstanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal ofTraumatic Stress. (3), 1.
For more info, contact Dr. Kitty Unthank specializing in healing trauma and in spiritual psychology at (775) 742-1475.