What is Vicarious Trauma?

©  2018 Ellie Izzo & Vicki Carpel Miller

“How do you do this all day?” How many times have we as helping professionals been asked this question only to respond with a look on our faces that hardly represents our true feelings?  Unless, of course, you are talking with another person who has walked a mile in your shoes – anyone who serves as a “good ear” - one who can empathize with your authentic response to that commonly asked question.

Vicarious Trauma is defined as a transformation in the helper’s inner sense of identity and existence that results from utilizing controlled empathy when listening to clients’ trauma-content narratives. In other words, vicarious trauma is what happens to your neurological (or cognitive), physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health when you listen to traumatic stories day after day or respond to traumatic situations while having to control your reaction.   

. . . vicarious trauma is what happens to your neurological (or cognitive), physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health when you listen to traumatic stories day after day or respond to traumatic situations while having to control your reaction

A transformation occurs to your inner-self as well as your perception of the world around you, that can cause serious impairment—depression, anxiety, addiction—and can put you at serious risk for complaints to your licensure board. 

Every time we interact from a position of compassion, controlling our empathic response with clients, patients, friends, congregants, strangers or neighbors, we are putting ourselves at risk.


Dr. Ellie Izzo and Vickie Carpel Miller, BSN, LMFT are co-authors of Second-Hand Shock: Surviving & Overcoming Vicarious Trauma (Unhooked Books, 2018).