The term “vicarious traumatization” describes the emotional, psychological, and spiritual changes that take place within an empathic person as a result of regular exposure to other peoples’ traumas. It is also known as “secondary stress.” Vicarious trauma is a component of  “compassion fatigue.”

Vicarious trauma affects nurses, therapists, social workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, journalists, human service volunteers, members of the clergy, physicians, criminal defense lawyers, judges, and others who regularly bear witness to victims’ stories of violence, abuse, and neglect.

Symptoms include social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to violence, cynicism, despair, nightmares, disturbing images while awake, hopelessness, emotional numbing, spiritual distress, disconnection from oneself and loved ones, decrease in emotional and psychological coping skills, and increased fear and anxiety. Physical symptoms may include shortness of breath, palpitations, digestive upsets, fatigue, headaches, sleep disruptions, and muscular aches and pains.

Working with traumatized clients is a transforming experience. Most of the time, the positive aspects of the work overshadow the negative aspects. However, sometimes the negative aspects interfere with one’s ability to function effectively at home and at work. Untreated, vicarious trauma can lead to ineffectiveness on the job and eventually, to burn-out. Vicarious trauma disrupts a person’s sense of safety in the world, one’s trust in human decency, one’s hope for the future, and one’s overall sense of well-being.

While a number of academic and self-help books have been written about vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burn-out, The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit tells a personal story of how VT develops in a professional caregiver over time. The major lesson of The Comfort Garden is that people who routinely witness other people’s pain and suffering need support to do the work they do.

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