Vicarious Trauma


‘The negative transformation in the helper that results (across time) from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors and their traumatic material, combined with a commitment or responsibility to help them”

(Pearlman and Caringi 2009)

Vicarious Trauma is a term used to describe the unique, negative and acculmative changes that can occur to ‘clinicians’ who engage in empathetic relationships with clients. (McCann & Pearlman 1990)

It can manifest in a Social Workers personal and professional life and  the effects fall into four categories;

  • Intrusive imagery,
  • Arousal,
  • Avoidant behaviours, and
  • Negative changes to cognitions.


Vicarious Trauma involves cognitive shifts in the social workers frame of reference, including disturbances in identity, spirituality, and world view,  as well as changes in self-perception, ego resources and psychological needs. The Social Worker’s sense of normality can significantly shift from the generally accepted norm. Hyper vigilance and hyper arousal to everyday risk factors can occur as a result of the exposure to repeated traumatic materials and client experiences.

Due to the relational basis of work with clients the risk of Vicarious Trauma can be seen as a natural and normal response to the caring relationship. The Social Workers desire to help is a key factor which can lead to them being impacted by the repeated exposure to trauma materials. This practitioner secondary traumatisation can contribute greatly to the wider risk of burnout for the Social Worker.

Vicarious Trauma is not caused by a single traumatic experience but by the practitioner being exposed to ongoing and repeated trauma materials. It is not first hand trauma that the Social Worker themselves experiences but can have symptoms similar to that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Left untreated Vicarious Trauma can have serious and lasting impacts on the Social Worker. For Prevention of long term harm to the practitioner awareness, support and appropriate resources are required. In many cases medical intervention and ongoing support is necessary.