“I can’t stop thinking about it… It could have been me (or my child, my mother, my spouse)…”
Sounds familiar? Language professionals in line of their work are often exposed to highly emotional or traumatic material. According to Sexton, the accumulation of, and continuous exposure to, such emotionally challenging dynamics can lead to vicarious trauma, the effects of which go beyond a single encounter across all professional encounters, as well as potentially affecting both professional and personal life. (Sexton (1999). Vicarious traumatization of counsellors and effects on their workplaces. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 27(3), 393-403).
So what is vicarious trauma?
Vicarious traumatization is a negative transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences.Figley InstituteCFE Certification Guide, 2012.
Think of yourself as having an emotional bank account. You simply can’t get to the end of an office day with the same amount of emotional energy in your account as when you started. Your job is draining, even on a good day. It is up to you to recharge your emotional bank account on your own time.Dike Drummond, M.D.Compassion Fatigue Is a Call to Action. Huffington Post, December, 2012.
According to the American Counseling Association, the term vicarious trauma (sometimes also called compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress, or secondary victimization) describes the phenomenon generally associated with the “cost of caring”. Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue of exposure that service specialists, including language professionals, have from working in circumstances involving their clients’ trauma stories and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and emotional turmoil of fellow human beings. It can be understood as absorbing of another person’s trauma. It may affect professionals through changes in their beliefs about themselves, their world, their faith, and their psychological functioning.
To learn more about vicarious trauma, its signs, symptoms, and potential effects, download a quick guide adapted from “Vicarious Trauma. Fact Sheet No. 9” by the American Counseling Association.
Survey of interpreters working in mental health settings revealed that…
were emotionally impacted by their work
couldn’t stop thinking about their clients' troubles from several hours up to days after the session
stated that work experiences had impact on their personal lives
reported difficulties in taking other assignments, feeling weary, distracted & emotionally depleted
Source: Doherty, S. M., MacIntyre, A. M. & Wyne, T. (2010). How does it feel for you? The emotional impact and specific challenges of mental health interpreting. Mental Health Review Journal, 15(3), 31-44.
Did you know?…
One of the key triggers of vicarious trauma is, what is referred to as, controlled empathy. Controlled empathy is a vigorous neurological activity. When a language professional interprets the sad, shocking, or traumatic stories, it may look like he or she is calm and collected on the outside. But the activity going on inside the interpreter’s brain and body is likely anything but calm. Not only is the interpreter absorbing the traumatic story, he or she must do so in a constrained and professional manner. Become more aware of controlled empathy and how it differs from automatic empathy with this short video by Dr. Ellie Izzo with the Vicarious Trauma Institute.
How is vicarious trauma different from burnout?
You don't wake up one morning and all of a sudden 'have burnout.' ... Still, our bodies and minds do give us warnings, and if you know what to look for, you can recognize it before it's too late.Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D. "The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout ... Do You Have Them?" Psychology Today, November, 2013.
Burnout occurs when your body and mind can no longer keep up with the tasks you demand of them. Don’t try to force yourself to do the impossible. Delegate time for important tasks, but always be sure to leave time for relaxation and reflection.Del SuggsTruly Leading: Lessons in Leadership
It is important not to confuse vicarious trauma with burnout. Burnout is a combination of physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and cognitive weariness. It may also be defined as a progression of unsuccessful attempts to cope with negative stress conditions. Burnout is generally something that happens over time, and, as it builds up, a change, such as time off or a different working environment, can take care of burnout or improve it.
Vicarious trauma, however, is a state of tension caused by controlled empathic reactions and preoccupation with the dramatic stories and trauma experiences described by clients.
Studies have shown that nearly all language professionals experience some symptoms of vicarious trauma, burnout, or increased stress as a result of their repeated exposure to traumatic information and stories.
To learn more about burnout, how to identify, avoid and deal with its potential effects, check out these useful resources from the Psychology Today.
What about you?
Take this quick survey and learn what your colleagues are saying.
Which option best describes your role as a language professional?
Have you ever experienced symptoms of vicarious trauma?
Have your experiences at work affected other aspects of your life?
Let’s check our progress!
What we have learned so far…
Now that you know what vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue, is and how its symptoms and potential effects are different from burnout, learn why language professionals experience vicarious trauma differently than other service providers and practitioners.