Vicarious Trauma: A Trauma Shared

by Rodney Luster, Ph.D.

Stories can have a lasting effect. Perhaps you are reading this now because someone told you something that disturbed you, or you saw something that you cannot shake from your memory. What you may not know is that exposure to disturbing events and stories assign to you a secondary victim status. This status is known as vicarious trauma, and it is perhaps what you are experiencing.

What you must understand about vicarious trauma is that when we are exposed to potentially traumatizing events, even indirectly, this can be as potentially destructive as what the person who experiences the event directly undergoes.

Trauma is a pervasive element of our existence. Most of us have been traumatized whether we realize it or not, whether it is conscious or not. The idea of trauma refers to an impact upon an organism that is so profound that it alters the organism physically, psychologically, or both.

It happened in Houston. What precipitated this event was a news story about an American beheaded by Iraqi terrorists, captured on film. The media aired the actual footage, and, of course, in true fashion, someone thought it would be quite a marketing scheme to put this on a website. The story does not end there. A Houston teacher decided to explore this site and pull up this gruesome video clip in class. Students had the opportunity to see this event. Repercussions were not felt the first day, as many of the students could not discern the difference between simulated video game violence and reality.

The true emotional effect occurred when they were alone, left to their own thoughts. When students commented earlier in the day about what they saw, their remarks were emotionally flat. What occurred during the night was quite a different story for these children. Many reported bad dreams, depression, and horrible visions that they could not forget. This is the manner in which vicarious trauma flourishes.

According to McCann and Pearlman (1990), vicarious trauma refers to "...the enduring psychological consequences for therapists resulting from exposure to the traumatic experience of victim clients."

To date there have been only a handful of studies examining vicarious trauma, and those are relegated to the helping professions. In the same token, such research is noteworthy because the identification of vicarious trauma could encourage new public policies regarding communication of traumatic events via mass media, as well as initiate specific areas for further research in the population.

McCann and Pearlman (1990) also assert that vicarious trauma influences the person's frame of reference, which incorporates his or her worldview, perspective, identity, and spirituality (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995a).

In my research, I define vicarious trauma as exposure to another’s traumatic event and the observer’s reactions as a result of that same event. For instance, a friend may decide they need to share something with you that happened to them. They have never told anyone. What they begin telling you creates an uneasy feeling. Your mind starts to visualize their story. You interrupt the conversation and look for a reason to move away from the exchange. The rest of the day you feel strange about what occurred. You dismiss it as something you didn’t want to hear in the first place. Then you start to wonder, could it happen to me? Emotional reactions to such situations can be as vast as experiencing trauma itself.

A partial list of things to look for in yourself or others after exposure to a disturbing event, story, communication exchange, media, or news footage include the following: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, intrusive imagery or flashbacks, hyperactivity, night-terrors, rage reactions, mood swings, reduced ability to cope with daily stressors, social withdrawal, avoidance behaviors with certain situations, depression, despair, hopelessness, recurring anger, self-blame, guilt and shame, compulsive or aggressive behaviors, sleep disorders, concentration problems, disconnection from others, loss of interest in outside activities, and phantom physical pains.

Here is what you can do. Remember, if you see or hear things that dehumanize or hurt people or living things, whether these are actual individuals or characters on film, these offensive images, sounds, or disclosures are the very things that create secondary victim status. Remember, awareness is vital and you have to make the conscious decision to not engage situations that produce an uneasy feeling or make you feel uncomfortable. Protect yourself by knowing that if you are in contact with these things, there will be some emotional consequence, whether psychological or physical. Become aware of how you respond to such occurrences, how did it make you feel? "One thought expands itself" is an easy rule of thumb. As a thought expands, it becomes exaggerated, unreal, and irrational. Activate positive thoughts as often as you can. The power of positive thought is restorative. Also, allow yourself the ability to feel and the freedom to heal.


  • McCann, I. L. & Pearlman, L. A. (1990). Vicarious traumatization: A framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3, 131-149.
  • Pearlman, L. A. & Saakvitne, K.W. (1995). Trauma and the therapist - counter-transference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Dr. Rodney Luster The University of Phoenix Director of Academic Affairs/512+344+1409

Dr. Luster oversees day-to-day academic activities involving faculty, curriculum, assessment and compliance. His tenure with the University began several years ago as an instructor at the Dallas and Memphis campuses. Luster has held teaching and management positions in both traditional and non-traditional college environments. In addition to his professional recognition, Dr. Luster is an author of numerous academic publications including a recent re-released book The Dichotomized Self in Society.


Jeremie Rentas Barlow, M.S., can be reached at (502) 553-8299.