Vicarious Trauma – Day 4 – Jennifer Osborne

Vancouver, Canada. This woman was brutally beaten because she owed a small debt to a dangerous man. Her story was very heavy for me and it was hard to maintain distance from it after spending 2 hours with her talking about this experience. (Jennifer Osborne)

Vicarious Trauma is a relatively new term. It was coined by McCanna and Pearlman in the 90s to describe experiences psychotherapists have via patients who are trauma survivors. In the 2000s, the term expanded its application towards a wide range of people working with clients or subjects suffering from traumatic experiences, such as doctors, journalists, social workers, lawyers, the list goes on.

Although vicarious trauma is not always permanent and can sometimes lead to spiritual growth, or strengthening of the will, it is often unpleasant or disturbing for those who suffer from it. Basically, it is a disorder where an aid worker or person telling another person’s story absorbs so much of the traumatized one’s experience that they themselves begin to feel the symptoms parallel to the original victim. And, if the person listening to or witnessing disturbing subject matter has a similar past experience, the vicarious trauma can trigger a revival of past pain. It is a very serious matter that can lead to burnout, mental collapse or just general depression and anxiety.

I think for a lot of photographers working in very tense environments with loads of sadness, violence or emotional baggage, vicarious pain is something that creeps up slowly, and it becomes noticeable only when it is completely debilitating. It is important to watch for the signs of vicarious trauma, and if they become apparent, self-care is necessary.

Here are some symptoms of vicarious trauma:

  • Social Withdrawal
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • A heightened sensitivity to violence or abuse
  • Insomnia
  • Decrease in sexual desire
  • Emotional instability
  • Unusual reactivity or anger bursts
  • Trust and intimacy issues
  • Cynicism

Once a person realizes they are at the mercy of the affects of trauma, it is important to seek the proper healing and self-care to remedy these adversities. Many aid workers and journalists, etc… disregard their own reactions and care needs, almost in a sacrificial way, in order to focus on helping the people in need. But this is clearly unhealthy and will ruin said person’s capacity to provide care.

Vancouver, Canada. This woman, who now resides on the Dowtown Eastside, claims she was tied up in a room inside one of Vancouver’s hotels in the 90s and nearly beaten to death for her debit card pin. Luckily a hotel staff member came to her rescue before she came close to death. Whether her words are true or not (as it may be a result of mental illness) they still have power to affect the listener with vicarious trauma. (Jennifer Osborne)

Because vicarious trauma generally affects spiritual wellbeing, it can often lead to great realizations and understandings about life. But, that is something that begins only after its victim has recovered effectively. Transforming vicarious trauma into a positive learning experience only results when a person takes time out to rest, relax and play, essentially by making life worth living after realizing that it can be painful. If you yourself think you may have vicarious trauma, it is important to:

  • Spend quality time with your community of friends and loved ones
  • Remind yourself about the importance of the humanitarian work you are or were doing
  • Place yourself in the moment and try to enjoy the small things (like drinking tea, walking and brief connections you have with others)
  • Take time to reflect with reading, writing, meditation, yoga, etc…
  • Be aware of your negative beliefs that result from a situation and try to challenge or overcome them
  • Try to engage in growth-promoting activities such as being creative or learning new things
  • Seek professional help from a counsellor

Vancouver, Canada. These two women who suffer from anxiety disorders have suffered from their own experiences and from hearing about others’. Luckily they have formed a great friendship which gives them hope to continue living each day. Community is an important part of overcoming any psychologically based trauma… (Jennifer Osborne)

It is normal that in a world filled with so many different scenarios, both bad and good, that we will encounter trauma at some point or another. And it is definitely normal for photographers working in the documentary field to encounter massive amounts of pain. But, it is what we do with these negative experiences that can make our work more insightful or powerful. You can cave into it, or just move on through it – in the end you will always have the choice to decide how to transcend it.

Category: Member's Blog

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