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What is the difference between Secondary Trauma v. Vicarious Trauma?

Indirect trauma is very serious, and often not considered such. Indirect trauma happens when we are exposed to horrific or difficult images, stories, or scenes second-hand, resulting in symptoms like those of trauma survivors.

Vicarious trauma and secondary trauma are both forms of indirect trauma and are often used interchangeably. However, these two terms are different and can represent themselves in different ways. Here are the main differences between secondary and vicarious trauma.

Secondary Trauma Defined

Secondary trauma, or secondary traumatic stress (STS), is indirect trauma by hearing details or witnessing the aftermath of trauma experienced by another person. STS can occur if you are repeatedly exposed to distressing details of the trauma experienced by others. Those who work in helping professions like social workers, counselors, or first responders are at a greater risk of experiencing secondary trauma. Loved ones of trauma survivors are also at a big risk.

STS symptoms are nearly identical to symptoms of PTSD, so much so that it may be diagnosed as such. Common symptoms include intrusive symptoms, where you may find yourself having unwanted trauma-related memories or dreams. Another symptom is avoidance when you actively avoid anything that reminds you of the trauma. Or you may find yourself engaging in self-destructive behaviors, prone to an angry outburst, or have an exaggerated startle fight or flight responses.

Vicarious Trauma Defined

Vicarious trauma (VT) is used to describe the shift in world views that occur in people who are repeatedly exposed to or work with trauma survivors. It is more so an occupational challenge among social workers, law enforcement, emergency medical services, or other allied professions that are constantly exposed to second-hand trauma. It is not the same as STS or PTSD, which refers to someone experiencing or witnessing trauma directly.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma are often found in the shift in viewpoints, and they can become more cynical, fearful, and easily stressed. On the contrary, those with symptoms of vicarious trauma can also become appreciative of what they have. The responses can be negative, neutral, or even positive, and can change over time depending on the individual.

The Main Difference Between Secondary Trauma and Vicarious Trauma

While secondary trauma refers to witnessing the trauma experienced by others, vicarious trauma refers to the shift in world views that result in witnessing trauma experienced by others. As an example, a domestic violence shelter worker may start to believe that all relationships are dangerous, or a family social worker losing trust in anyone who approaches their child. Despite this difference, both are indirect trauma experiences and should be addressed.

Coping and Getting Help

Over time, repeated exposure to difficult images or scenes can negatively impact the way we react to certain situations and alter our mentality. Just because you did not experience this trauma first-hand does not mean your experience is invalid. You deserve to find the resources you need to set you on the healing path.

1. Source: TEND Academy (2022) Defining Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Traumatic Stress

2. Source: Shirley Porter (2022) Secondary Trauma: Definition, Causes & How to Cope

3. Source: OVC (2022) What is Vicarious Trauma?

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