Vicarious Traumatization

“Vicarious Traumatization” refers to the set of emotional/psychological reactions often experienced by someone who witnesses (directly or indirectly) any traumatic event or series of events. Examples might include a car accident, violent crime, suicide or medical emergency. Factors that can affect your likelihood of being vicariously traumatized include: your proximity to the situation; your relationship with the person(s) involved; the element of surprise or shock; the presence of interpersonal violence vs. an illness/injury not deliberately caused; and having experienced similar traumas or losses in the past.

Traumatic stress responses can appear soon after an incident occurs, or can be triggered at some later time by any reminder of the traumatic experience:

  • Intrusive symptoms, such as nightmares, “flashbacks”, or recurring memories/images.
  • Numbing and avoidance responses – conscious or unconscious avoidance of any reminder of the traumatic event; attempts to induce emotional “numbness” through substance abuse or other self-destructive behaviors; depression; and obsessive-compulsive symptoms that might reflect a preoccupation with safety/security (e.g., checking and re-checking to make sure that doors are locked).
  • Increased arousal and hypervigilence – an inability to relax and feel safe – being stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode; sleep disturbances; constant scanning of one’s environment for any potential danger; an exaggerated startle response when something unexpected appears; symptoms of panic or phobia connected to being in a situation that might recall the traumatic event.

Other emotional reactions might include

  • Feelings of shock and disbelief
  • Feelings of (irrational) guilt and self-blame for not having been able to prevent something bad from occurring
  • Irrational fear for the safety of oneself and loved ones
  • Poor concentration due to anxiety, depression, or preoccupation with the traumatic event
  • Feeling isolated and misunderstood, especially by others who were “not there”


  1. Acknowledge that you have been traumatized at some level. Maintain a normal schedule, but give yourself “space” by scaling back commitments for a period of time.
  2. Pay attention to basic self-care such as eating regular meals and getting enough sleep. See your physician if stress-related symptoms persist or if sleep/appetite problems do not start to improve after a short period.
  3. Don’t try to numb yourself with alcohol or drugs (including caffeine & nicotine), as this can exacerbate  stress-related symptoms and also become a problem in itself.
  4. “De-brief” about the traumatic incident with supportive people who will listen to your feelings without giving a lot of advice.
  5. Minimize your exposure to traumatic stimuli, such as violent movies or the TV news.
  6. If your negative emotional/psychological responses are severe or if they persist longer than a couple of weeks, consider talking with a counselor for extra support and help with putting the bad experience behind you.

Helping Resources

Crisislink (Northern Virginia) Hotline (24 hours)703-527-4077
Grief Program, Springfield Community Mental Health Center 703-866-2119
Hospice of Northern Virginia (grief counseling) 703-538-2065
National Mental Health Association (counseling referrals) 703-684-7722
Woodburn Emergency Mental Health Services (24 hours)703-573-5679