Human Resilience

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Vicarious Traumatisation

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Vicarious Trauma

“All Emotions are contagious… Both the ones that are pleasant and the ones that are unpleasant’’ - Babette Rothschild.

As psychological professionals, we have frequently taught about ‘vicarious traumatisation’ which is a well known phrase for those of us who spend a lot of time listening to other people’s experiences of traumatic incidents.

 Indeed the psychotherapy and counselling field’s established practice of ‘supervision’ is a vital component for keeping counsellors healthy and resilient to enable them to continue to perform effectively. We are regularly called upon to assist teams of people who work at the coalface in organisations, these include HR, Health & Safety Teams, Trade Union representatives and also counselling teams. These roles often fall into the category of what Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson have called  ‘Toxic Handlers’ (Harvard Business Review July 1999).

Vicarious traumatisation is a widely used term used to describe symptoms closely related to ‘burn out’ or ‘compassion fatigue’ often experienced by those people whose jobs involve listening to other people’s experiences of trauma. Vicarious traumatisation recreates a similar effect in the nervous system of the listener to that of the person they are listening to. Wonderful when someone is telling you about their holiday on a Caribbean island….but not quite so spacious or relaxing when they are sharing their experience of being a victim of violence, especially if you don’t have a way to stop the flood of overwhelming messages.  In vicarious traumatisation we don’t necessarily have to be the direct ‘victim’ of such an incident but merely a bystander or witness in some way.

When someone dumps their toxic feelings on us – explodes in anger or threats, shows disgust or contempt – they activate in us circuitry for those very same distressing emotions. Their act has potent neurological consequences: emotions are contagious. We “catch” strong emotions much as we do a rhinovirus–and so can come down with the emotional equivalent of a cold.
Daniel Goleman ‘Social Intelligence’ (Bantam, 2006)
Therefore, anyone whose role involves direct work with people may, over time begin to notice negative consequences, this could include HR teams, Nurses, Social Workers, Emergency Services personnel, Counsellors and those who are called upon in their work to regularly record traumatic events, such as legal secretaries or record keepers in areas such as legal trials or those supporting child protection or other case conferences.

Mirror Neurons

Science has recently demonstrated that we are naturally hardwired to imitate others with the discovery of mirror neurons.  Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma led a research team in early 1990s, that discovered mirror neuron’s by mistake. They noticed that any time a researcher reached for a piece of fruit or broke open a nut the brain monitors of the monkey’s they were researching bleeped.  This led to them changing the focus of their research and they have since discovered that a monkey’s brain contains a special class of cells, which they called mirror neurons.  These fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries out the same action on its own.    They subsequently discovered that human brains have much more subtle and sophisticated mirror neuron’s, which Dr Rizzolatti says demonstrate that we are  ‘exquisitely social creatures’.
The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.
New York Times
While researching Mirror Neurons for a training we are giving next week, I found an excellent article entitled Cells That Read Minds which offers a more in depth explanation of the research and also includes a great slide show.

Signs to look out for Vicarious Traumatisation 

If you regularly are a listening ear to someone who has been involved in a critical incident or if you have witnessed something traumatic, the following are signs to watch out for.  If these persist over a period of time, it is important to pay attention and take steps to take care of yourself.
  • Intrusive images or dreams of stories that may have been recounted
  • Increase in sleepless nights or changes in sleep patterns
  • Unexplained loss of sense of aliveness and numbness, often accompanied by questioning whether this is the right career in a role that has been previously enjoyed.
  • In some extreme cases there may even be an increase in exposure to accidents and it is particularly important to watch if this is happening within teams.
  • An unexplained  general sense of tiredness, boredom & lethargy
  • This in turn can be projected out onto the organisation and lead to increased negativity and cynicism towards aims of the organisation.
  • In severe cases it can lead to depression, loss of meaning in one’s life and even to use of substances to help sleep and control anxiety states.
The following extract from a paper for The International Society for the Psycholanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO) which explored vicarious traumatisation in the staff involved in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Council demonstrates some of the signs of compassion fatigue.

‘The lack of processing of countertransference[i] experiences by the TRC staff manifested in the symptom of a pervading boredom. Staff often discussed being utterly “bored” by the repetitive and relentless nature of the deponents personal stories. They became inured and emotionally blunted. Although there was liberal discussion of things like ‘vicarious traumatisation’ this happened at an intellectual level and there remained the unspoken fear of dealing with this knowledge at an emotional and organisational level.

A core dimension of the primary task of the TRC was to create a space for voice. In so doing it paradoxically silenced the articulation of the consequential emotional story of the organisation itself. The intersubjectivity of the process remained unacknowledged and silenced. Flight from the “impossible primary task” took several forms. This disavowal of the impact of the process on the organisation was challenged at a critical point in one hearing where Tutu was presiding. It was a ‘ typical’ story of yet another victim. However this time it was all too much. Desmond Tutu as he buried his head in his hands and simply broke down, sobbing inconsolably as a colleague placed her hand on his back and passed him a tissue.

From hell to hope : An organizational case study of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South AfricaCharles Haupt, nstitute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town & Charles Malcolm Ph.D. University of Cape Town

Our nerve cells communicate to each other through spaces called Synapses.  For my MA Psychotherapy dissertation called “The Synaptic Space’  I researched the therapeutic encounter from the perspective of quantam physics and the Buddhist philosophy of interconnectedness.  My hypothesis was that the space between us and another, becomes like the synapse where all sorts of information is transmitted.  It seems as if our mirror neuron’s are the key’s which help us to tune into these transmissions and understand another’s experience.

The discovery of mirror neurons verifies many therapists and counsellors intuitive knowing, to pay attention to how they feel in their body during a therapeutic conversation with a client. It is very important to remember that when dealing someone who is traumatised, their nervous system is often in a high state of chaos, working very hard to stabilse, it may be running at high speed, or alternatively have become stuck or frozen. It vital to have a way of maintaining your own centre when working with people in these states of agitation

As social beings our systems are hardwired to be naturally empathic to another and by understanding this we will be able to develop ways to maintain our own boundary and avoid vicarious traumatisation.
‘Research indicates that professionals with less experience and training are more vulnerable to its effects (McCann and Pearlman,1990) support from participation in professional activities, training and support groups is very important in maintaining one’s stability. It is crucial to talk to others about this work.’
Maryanna Eckberg Victims of Cruelty North Atlantic Books 2000
We regularly run workshops with HR and counselling teams around compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatisation, because we believe it is vital to educate people and help them find ways to manage compassion fatigue, especially if they are dealing with people who may have been traumatised and particularly when it is turning a job someone used to enjoy into a chore they dread. 


[i] Transference & Counter-Transference is a widely debated psychological term and phenomena of the therapeutic relationship.  At it’s most simplistic transference relates to the emotions, thoughts  & feelings a client may transfer from their past onto the present situation with the therapist.  Counter-transference relates to the emotions, thoughts & feelings the therapist may experience in relation to the client. Some people believe it is the therapist’s own past being triggered whilst others think it is a more holistic response which expresses the client’s world.

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