Supporting people in trauma: the cost of caring

To state the obvious, there are a whole lot of people across Aotearoa and the world hurting at the moment.

It’s in our homes through the media, or through our own personal connections or experiences. It pulls on and at times, overwhelms our hearts, it can make us feel sick to our gut … then often, causes us into action.

It can be hard sitting in a place in between… Wanting to support, yet feeling helpless to do so. But, because of the make-up of this world we live in, it is often that we know someone closely who is experiencing a traumatic event.

How do we support those people who are in trauma… whilst not becoming traumatised ourselves?

First, let me explain some terminology.

Vicarious Trauma

This occurs when you are exposed to the traumatic experiences of another person. It can happen either by witnessing the traumatic experience, for example seeing someone being hurt and feeling powerless to do something about it or hearing about it, for example listening to someone sharing graphic details of their traumatic experiences.

Responding to vicarious trauma can change one’s worldview – people can either become cynical or fearful, more appreciative of what they have, or both. Responses to vicarious trauma can change over time; and can vary from individual to individual, particularly with prolonged exposure. It can have a negative, neutral, positive or even transformational impact on the supporter.

  • Vicarious traumatisation is a negative reaction to trauma exposure and includes a range of psychosocial symptoms.
  • A neutral reaction signifies the ways that an individual’s resilience, experiences, support, and coping strategies manage the traumatic material, not that it has no effect.
  • Vicarious resilience and vicarious transformation are newer concepts reflecting the positive effects of this work. For instance, individuals may draw inspiration from a victim’s resilience which strengthens their own mental and emotional fortitude. Just as victims can be transformed in positive ways by their trauma, so can victim supporters.
  • Compassion satisfaction reflects the sense of meaning that is gained from working in the fields of victim services and first responders. Such positive outcomes can motivate and, in turn, protect against the negative effects of trauma exposure.

Compassion fatigue

This occurs when your ability to care, often through empathy, becomes exhausted. You have no more compassion or empathy in your ‘tank’.

Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue can coexist or occur independently. Both can lead to burnout.


Burnout is when your emotional, physical and mental state has reached a point of exhaustion. This is usually caused by excessive and prolonged stress that has not been managed or recognised early enough. It is often accompanied by feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to function normally in your day-to-day tasks.

Indicators of vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue

While everybody’s experience is different, the list below provides some guidance. If you’ve been experiencing any of these for a prolonged period of time, it’s time to reach out and get help:

  • difficulty empathising with others
  • increased feelings of cynicism, sadness or seriousness
  • increased irritability
  • reduced sense of personal accomplishment
  • avoiding situations you perceive as potentially dangerous
  • having no time or energy for self or others
  • procrastination
  • increased sensitivity to violence and other forms of abuse, for example, when watching television or a film
  • feeling overwhelmed by emotions such as anger, fear, grief, despair, shame, guilt
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • de-personalisation (feeling detached from oneself)
  • low self-esteem
  • feeling profoundly distrustful of other people and the world in general
  • disruptions in interpersonal relationships
  • sleeping problems
  • substance abuse.

Everybody will feel some of these at different points in their life, however, when a combination of some of these indicators becomes your default way of functioning day to day, something is not right.

What can you do for yourself and others?

Preventative strategies and early intervention are always better than reaching a crisis and needing to heal from that.

Preventative strategies include:

  • getting regular reflective professional supervision, individual and group where possible
  • ensuring you have strong peer networks that you can call upon when you need that extra support
  • having a life outside of work that involves family, friends and non-work-related activities
  • know what you can manage; don’t overload yourself, and ensure a mix of hard and fun mahi
  • limit exposure to media
  • increase your self-observation – recognise and chart your signs of stress, vicarious trauma and burnout.
  • getting regular yearly check-ups with your GP/Health Professional
  • having a regular exercise routine that gets your heart pumping a little harder than your daily norm (seek medical guidance if you are uncertain about your health and ability to do exercise)
  • undertaking activities that are good for the mind as well as the body, such as yoga, tai-chi, meditation
  • don’t take on responsibility for another’s well-being but supply them with tools to look after themselves.
  • Make time for yourself, particularly if you are in a caring occupation: have a life so you can heal a life!

If you recognise the beginnings of any indicators from the list above – DO NOT IGNORE them:

  • reach out within your professional and private networks for support
  • touch base with your team leader and let them know what is happening
  • be mindful of any ‘voices’ in you that say, ‘get on with it’ or ‘toughen up’.

If you feel what is happening is too private to discuss with your colleagues or networks, consider engaging a therapist or counsellor. Your organisation may have an employee assistance program (EAP) that provides free counselling. Take advantage of it, that’s what it’s there for.

As you support your loved ones, colleagues and strangers, remember to support yourself. You can’t help when your own cup is empty.

Need a speaker?

There are plenty of speakers to choose from. I am not the norm. You won’t be bored to tears by the same ole’ approach and dribble. How about bringing Mary-Anne for the conference or all-staff day.

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