Understanding Vicarious Trauma in Social Care: Signs, Symptoms, and Self-Care Strategies

In the realm of social care work, our mission is to extend compassion, support, and guidance to those in need. We work in the life-space of others, immersing ourselves in their lives, often encountering stories of struggle, resilience and survival. While our dedication fuels our work, it's crucial to acknowledge the potential impact it can have on our own well-being. This post delves into the concept of vicarious trauma – a phenomenon that warrants our attention, and proactive self-care strategies.

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, occurs when individuals who are exposed to the traumatic experiences of others begin to internalise and experience symptoms similar to those who directly underwent the trauma. In the context of social care work, where professionals regularly interact with individuals who have endured trauma, abuse, or other distressing situations, the risk of vicarious trauma is ever-present.

In our line of work, vicarious trauma can manifest through repeated exposure to service users’ traumatic experiences. Whether it's listening to firsthand accounts of domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, or homelessness, our role as compassionate listeners and advocates places us in the direct path of absorbing others' pain. In addition, our deep empathy and identification with those we are supporting can blur the boundaries between their experiences and our own, making us susceptible to vicarious trauma.

Being aware of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma is the first step in mitigating its impact. Emotional exhaustion, increased anxiety or stress, difficulty sleeping, depersonalisation, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviour, and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach issues can all serve as red flags. These are all issues I’ve faced at certain times in my career as a social care worker. I now know that by paying attention to these indicators, we can intervene early and implement self-care strategies to safeguard our well-being.

There are a number of things we can do to protecting ourselves from the negative impacts of vicarious trauma.

1. Self-awareness and Reflection: Regularly reflecting on our emotional state and reactions to our work can help us recognise signs of vicarious trauma early on. I like to keep a journal to write about my experiences and the impact on me personally, others may prefer to talk it out with friends or colleagues.

2. Establishing Boundaries and Practicing Self-Care: Setting clear boundaries between work and personal life is essential. Ensuring you can say ‘no’ if you don’t want to do additional hours and switching off the work phone/watsapp notifications are a good place to start. I find that having a ritual at the end of my work day can be really help to transition from work time to personal time. Engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones can help to replenish our emotional reserves.

3. Seeking Supervision and Support: Regular supervision sessions with peers, supervisors or an external supervisor can provide opportunities to discuss challenging cases and seek support. Peer support groups can also offer a safe space for sharing experiences and coping strategies.

4. Continuous Training and Education: Investing in continuous training on trauma-informed care and self-care techniques can equip us with the skills and knowledge to navigate vicarious trauma effectively.

5. Seeking Professional Help: If symptoms persist or become severe, seeking support from a mental health professional is crucial. Therapy or counselling can provide the necessary tools to process emotions and develop effective coping strategies. As a social care practitioner of 22+ years, I’m no stranger to seeking professional help and it’s been very helpful at times.

By acknowledging the risk of vicarious trauma and prioritising our own well-being, we can continue to serve our service users with compassion and dedication while safeguarding our own mental health. Let's embark on this journey of self-care together, empowering ourselves to make a lasting impact in the lives of those we serve.