Olivia James is a performance anxiety and trauma consultant. This post was written based on her personal lived experience of trauma and traumatised people as well as her clinical experience of treating trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Vicarious trauma involves witnessing other people suffer. Visiting crime scenes, accident scenes, hospitals, war zones and humanitarian disasters can cause vicarious trauma. This can also happen when a journalist interviews victims of tragedies, accidents, violent incidents, wars or disasters.
Vicarious trauma is not quite the same thing as burnout, but they can be related. Any trauma that you experience or witness in your professional life is of course in additional to the traumas you may have experienced in your personal life and this can make a big difference to your ability to cope.
Common misconceptions about trauma
"Trauma can be treated by talking about it.” "Just have a stiff drink and you'll be fine." "If you're resilient, trauma won't affect you." "Time heals all wounds."
"You just don't want to get over it. You lack willpower."
I wish all these were true because a lot of suffering could be avoided. However, things are not that simple. Humans are not wired like that.
How can you recognise the signs of PTSD?
PTSD can occur after an event or multiple events that involve a threat to life. For example, death, injury or serious harm. A feature of trauma is powerlessness and being overwhelmed, feelings of fear, helplessness and horror.
The event can be re-experienced through intrusive images, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks and psychological or physiological symptoms like panic.
The body keeps the score
A therapeutic presence and talking it through can help, especially if your counsellor has lived experience of your type of trauma and a calming presence.
A rational understanding of why you get triggered and which incident led to this can be helpful but will not stop it from happening again.
One of the recent examples of that is the story of the war veteran Brett Savage who was having flashbacks and would get triggered by sounds and smells after he returned from Afghanistan. He took his own life aged just 32.
"The doctor said that he could be walking down the street and it could be a noise or a smell and it would set him off," explained his mother. "He just couldn't control it."
This is a reaction that occurs lower down than the conscious rational mind. The rational mind cannot control these reactions. So conventional counselling will not help with the symptoms Savage was experiencing.
A big part of treating trauma is turning down the anxiety, getting the nervous system out of high fight/flight. The mind and body need to get the message that the danger has passed. Often the system stays on high alert (hypervigilance) long after the danger is gone.
How to look after your mental health
Only get as much detail as you need for the story. Minimise your exposure to trauma as much as you can while still doing your job. If you find you are really dreading the next interview you may have a problem. If a colleague wants to offload details of a trauma they witnessed, stop them if it is going to affect your mental health. Gallows humour tends to be a coping mechanism for first responders. You may have experienced this yourself.
Symptoms and coping mechanisms
When trauma occurs, we may strive to avoid similar situations, or experience numbing (feeling detached and spaced out), hyper-arousal (feeling edgy and unsafe), sleep problems, mood swings (including violent outbursts) and concentration problems.
We can also experience hyper-vigilance (feeling constantly on high alert) and an exaggerated startle response (for example jumping out of your skin if someone creeps up behind you and taps you on the shoulder).
Symptoms can take some time to emerge. So sometimes you do not know what precise incident caused the trauma. Ways to cope can include excessive drinking, drug use (self-medication), risky behaviours, relationship problems.
What to do
The first step is to go to your GP. You will probably be referred for assessment. You may be offered medication or be put on a waiting list for counselling, group therapy or CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). This could take months, even longer for trauma-focused CBT.
These can be helpful, but it can be a good idea to seek specialist help as soon as possible.
If you are working for a big news organisation you may also have private medical cover and this may be a way to get trauma-focused help. Get recommendations wherever you can but remember you need to find a practitioner who is right for you.
You can get in touch with Olivia James at olivia[at]harleystreetcoach.com
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