Vicarious Trauma: 3 Tips and Review of the book “Second-Hand Shock”

©2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

 Our High Conflict Institute speakers give seminars around the world to helping professionals (lawyers, judges, counselors, mediators, human resource managers, administrators, etc.) and others experiencing the stress of high-conflict situations. We often get asked about how to manage the stress or “vicarious trauma” of dealing with high-conflict personalities day-in and day-out. I usually give them my three favorite tips:

1.  Practice these self-encouraging statements:

It’s not about me! I’m not responsible for their outcome! It’s their dilemma! It’s always up to them! With high-conflict people: The issue’s not the issue; the personality is the issue! Just do my job—my standard of care!  I call this “putting on my armor” and repeat these over and over again before I head into a high conflict mediation, meeting or individual session.

These statements help me stay focused on the process of working with high-conflict clients, while not becoming responsible for their outcomes. They also help me remember the predictable behaviors of high-conflict personalities and the responses that I can use that generally help. Since the behavior of high-conflict people is more predictable than that of ordinary people, years of practice have helped me not be surprised much anymore.

2.  Have a great support system:

I am fortunate to have two work environments with great colleagues. Where I do my meditations (National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego) I can talk to our staff and colleagues down the hall right after a difficult session. They understand because they have also dealt with the same clients as staff or similar cases as mediators.

With a dozen speakers for High Conflict Institute, I can call or email my colleagues and quickly find someone to share my stress and many similar stories. It really helps to work with people who understand high-conflict behavior and don’t get hooked by the drama. My colleagues have so much empathy for each other and our clients that it makes most of this work enjoyable rather than feeling traumatized by it.

 3.  Get out of town every so often:

I really enjoy hiking and skiing and driving cross-country. It really helps clear my mind to be able to see forests and trees and wide-open spaces. Part of this is getting away from daily television and endless talk about current events. I get energy from seeing the grandeur of our national parks and awesome views that have lasted for centuries.

So those are my quick tips. Now, we have two experts, Ellie Izzo and Vicki Carpel-Miller, who have updated their book on this subject: Second-Hand Shock, Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma, 2nd Edition. I remember when their first edition came out in 2008. Since then, the public events of the economic crisis in 2008, the increased political polarization and 24/7 crises in the news media, there is even more vicarious trauma for professionals and lay persons alike.

Trauma seems in the air now! We all need this book!

Izzo and Carpel-Miller are both therapists with decades of experience on which to base their theory and practice. Their passion for this subject is amazing. While this is a huge subject, they focus on helpers, and they estimate there are about one hundred million helping professionals worldwide. In many cases, they are professionals who “mostly suffer in silence as the onset of Vicarious Trauma is slow, subtle and covert.”

I found it compelling to read about the personal effects on your brain of vicarious trauma, as well as the wider societal implications of this problem. Here’s an example of their passion for addressing this problem at all levels:

When we are first indirectly exposed to trauma, our brain begins to paint a picture for us by the activation of mirror neurons in the visual cortex. We see the event as if it were happening to us. A series of bio-physiological events then occur which results in the spilling out of chemicals into our bloodstream and throughout our body. This ultimately concludes in the over-production of cortisol that contributes to the onset of many serious physical illnesses.

We believe people are currently being treated for the symptoms of Second-Hand Shock Syndrome, which can be confused as other illnesses. We think Second-Hand Shock Syndrome needs to be addressed and treated as its own illness. Folks are treated for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression who likely began their downhill descent with some form of Second-Hand Shock Syndrome. We think it needs to become a recognized diagnosis and we believe that if people began to recognize the chronic intrusion of trauma content in their lives that their physical health would improve. It would also save our ailing healthcare system billions of dollars.

I also found it helpful to read their comparison of various phrases that are commonly used for similar experiences. They go deeper and, hopefully, their book will help refine and promote awareness of this problem as one larger subject we can (and must) get a handle on.

Vicarious Trauma is NOT compassion fatigue. It is NOT secondary traumatic stress nor is it burn out. Secondary stress, burnout and compassion fatigue are all possible symptoms within the realm of Vicarious Trauma. The defining concept for the diagnosis of Vicarious Trauma is the prerequisite expectation for the professional to control their empathic response while listening to the trauma content of others. This is the crucial differentiating factor. The repetitive ramping up and down of brain and body chemicals in order to control the empathic response is the key component for people suffering with Vicarious Trauma.

With charts, many examples, practical tips and a helpful Workbook Section in the last part of the book, the authors offer a real wealth of information for any professional who wants to survive and overcome vicarious trauma in this second edition of their powerful book.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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