What is Vicarious Trauma?

Talking about vicarious trauma in the workplace

Vicarious trauma is the notion that as a result of helping or wanting to help others, many people who work in professions such as counseling, social work, emergency services, or healthcare may experience the symptoms of this work. The idea is that vicarious trauma, also known as secondary traumatic stress, is the emotional and psychological residue of bearing witness to the trauma of others. However, it’s important to note that vicarious trauma is not a formal diagnosis, the following have been suggested as symptoms of vicarious trauma:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depressed mood
  3. Insomnia
  4. Intrusive thoughts or nightmares
  5. Difficulty concentrating
  6. Feeling emotionally overwhelmed
  7. Hypervigilance
  8. Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  9. Loss of pleasure or interest in activities

However, it is also important to notice that these are also the symptoms of many other mental health problems. In fact some of them are the symptoms of PTSD. It is important to know that one way you can develop PTSD is through indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, in the course of professional duties.

Vicarious Trauma no support

The concept of vicarious trauma was initially introduced by researchers  McCann and Pearlman (1990) in their article, Vicarious Traumatization: A Framework for Understanding the Psychological Effects of Working with Victims.  Several researchers (Hafkenscheid, 2005; Sabin-Farell & Turpin, 2003)  have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support the construct.

Burnout not Vicarious Trauma

When researched  with a comparison between vicarious trauma and burnout, people in workplaces experience burn out, which is also not a clinical diagnosis, but does describe the dissatisfaction and disillusionment with work that can occur by giving of oneself. There is a lot of research supporting burnout.  If you are experiencing some of the symptoms outlined above it could be important to  seek support. Being in the helping field, or just helping others  is not an inoculation for mental health problems.

 Working with a trained professional can help individuals understand their reactions and responses to helping people who have been through  traumatic events, or workplace stressors. At the Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne, our team of experienced clinicians can provide support for those who have experienced burnout or trauma. We offer evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) for PTSD.


Devilly GJ, Wright R, Varker T. Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress or Simply Burnout? Effect of Trauma Therapy on Mental Health Professionals. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2009;43(4):373-385. doi:10.1080/00048670902721079

Hafkenscheid., A. (2005). Event countertransference and vicarious traumatization: Theoretically valid and clinically useful concepts? European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling and Health, 7, (3), 159–168.

McCann, L., and Pearlman, L. (1990) Vicarious Traumatization: A Framework for Understanding the Psychological Effects of Working with Victims, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3, 1, 139-141.

Phelps, A., Lloyd, D., Creamer, M., Forbes, D. (2009) Caring for Carers in the Aftermath of Trauma; Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 18, 313–330.

Sabin-Farrell, R., Turpin, G. (2003) Vicarious traumatization: implications for the mental health of health workers? Clinical Psychology Review, 23, 449–480.

Williamson, K., Lank, P. M., Cheema, N., Hartman, N., Lovell, E. O., & Emergency Medicine Education Research Alliance (EMERA) (2018). Comparing the Maslach Burnout Inventory to Other Well-Being Instruments in Emergency Medicine Residents. Journal of graduate medical education, 10(5), 532–536. https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-18-00155.1