Vicarious trauma - the downside of having too much empathy

Vicarious trauma also known as 'compassion fatigue' describes the phenomenon of caring 'too much' for others. It affects those mainly involved in the caring of others as these workers are exposed day in and day out to the trauma and suffering of others.

Some of the occupations at risk of being affected are counsellors, emergency services particularly first responders, clergymen, psychotherapists and humanitarian workers. On continuously listening to the horrific stories of the trauma survivors or perhaps actually witnessing their ordeal, they become second hand witnesses to the fear and terror, pain and anguish they endured. It is almost as if they are suffering from post-traumatic stress by proxy.

This should not be confused with 'burnout' a term to describe someone who has been in the same job for so long they are literally emotionally and physically 'spent'. They perhaps have a lot of responsibility in the job for staff or the company budget which comes with a lot of worry and soul searching. However, a change of scene, new job or time away can improve their disposition and eradicate the problem though both burnout and vicarious trauma can co-exist.

The worker at risk from vicarious trauma should be aware of some of the signs and/or symptoms that could suggest that they are experiencing vicarious trauma. Family and close friends as well as staff personnel should also be on the lookout for tell-tale signs. Here are just a few of the signs listed below though this list is not exhaustive and each individual will display different signs and at different stages throughout their career.

  • Interrupted sleep or poor quality sleep as they cannot help but think about those who have suffered the trauma.
  • Having dreams/nightmares about the horrific suffering others endured.
  • An overwhelming feeling of hopelessness for the survivors of the traumas.
  • Feeling angry and frustrated on behalf of these victims of trauma.
  • They may experience intrusive imagery at all times of the day and night of what they imagine or saw what the trauma survivors experienced.
  • They may find it difficult to express their own feelings and emotions and bottle it all up.
  • They may distance themselves from loved ones experiencing an exaggerated sense of worry this trauma could happen to them too.

Many of the signs and symptoms are similar to depression with the same feelings of numbness and helplessness. It has been suggested that those who themselves have experienced a personal trauma may be more vulnerable and go on to experience vicarious trauma as they can empathise from a personal perspective of the suffering endured.

So how can the person at risk protect themselves from this harm? There are various ways they can ensure they practice 'self-care' on a regular basis. This should be tailored to the personality of the individual. It could be ensuring they 'switch off work' when they get home and spend quality time with their family and friends. Allowing themselves to share their thoughts and feelings with either a loved one or colleague who can help them view their thoughts rationally. Pursuing an enjoyable hobby, exercising, going regular holidays and even going for long walks in the fresh air to help clear their mind. 

It is too easy for these care workers to be too busy caring for others that they neglect to care for themselves, telling themselves that they are the ‘lucky ones’ and should not complain.

So where does hypnosis fit in? Hypnotherapy can be used as a regular treatment to 'wind down' and recalibrate one's inner emotions. If emotional turmoil is causing anxiety then the relaxation techniques used in hypnosis can benefit the client. The therapist can reason with the unconscious mind, allowing the client to put his thoughts into perspective and allow him to realise that whilst he cannot somehow change what has happened to the person in the past, he can realise that he has saved them from further suffering and given them a chance to begin afresh.

As well as resolving individual issues the client may be experiencing such as poor quality sleep, anxiety or depression, the very nature of a hypnotherapy session is aimed at relaxing and calming the client and changing a negative mind-set into a more positive one. Hypnosis can give the client back the confidence and the courage to continue in his line of work and replacing those feelings of hopelessness into feelings of pride and the knowledge that they have made a difference to others.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Glasgow G2 & London W1H
Written by Biodun Ogunyemi, Certified Master Hypnotherapist ANLP,BNLP,SNLP,C.H,Dip.Hyp
Glasgow G2 & London W1H

Biodun Ogunyemi is the founder of Optimind, one of the leading hypnotherapy practices within the UK. He has practiced on Harley Street and is an experienced hypnotherapist, trained to the highest level in Advanced Hypnotherapy and NLP and is the author of over 180 hypnosis products.

Show comments

Find a hypnotherapist dealing with Stress

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals