The Rise of Vicarious Trauma (and How to Manage It)


By Denise K. Ambre, LCSW

If you feel shaken by images you see on the news and in your social media feed, you’re not alone. You could be among a growing number of individuals experiencing vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma — also known as “secondary trauma” — can occur as the result of empathetic engagement with others who’ve experienced trauma. Symptoms can range from anxiety to intrusive thoughts, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, hypervigilance, depressed mood and feelings of hopelessness. In some cases, it can lead to PTSD.

Individuals who work in traditional “helping” professions (e.g., first responders, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists) are highly susceptible to vicarious trauma, particularly when they cross the fine line into “compassion fatigue” or burnout.

But evidence suggests that, regardless of profession, the general public is also vulnerable to vicarious trauma. A 2015 study found that almost 25 percent of people who had no prior trauma reported traumatic stress symptoms — vicarious trauma — after watching violent media coverage.

From mass shootings to plane crashes, sexual exploitation, terrorist attacks to natural disasters, we’re bombarded by graphic images and videos. We hear firsthand accounts from victims, whose stories are highly personal — and painful.

And it’s all more accessible than ever before. Gone are the days when we had to wait for the evening news to see it all. Cell phones and social media feeds have made local, national and world news available 24/7.

Who’s Most Vulnerable to Vicarious Trauma?

Coverage of COVID-19, police brutality and violent riots have upped the ante in recent months. And it’s having a profound effect — especially on individuals with a history of trauma, people of color and children.

  • Individuals with a history of trauma who struggle with PTSD can have their trauma reactivated or triggered by the stories and images they see on TV and social media. They might suffer from flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety. (If these symptoms are recurring, it could signal a need to seek professional help to manage them.)

  • People of color are at an even higher risk of suffering from vicarious trauma as a result of the coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, as they watched what was supposed to be a positive movement for change be overshadowed by acts of hate and police brutality. More research needs to be conducted to uncover the long-term consequences of witnessing these events.

  • Children, whose imaginations are vivid, lack the coping skills to deal with vicarious trauma. They often identify with victims and fear that what they see happening to others will happen to themselves or someone they love (like you!).

Related: The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Adult Loneliness 

How to Mitigate Vicarious Trauma

One differentiator that separates a trauma response from other factors that can trigger these symptoms is intrusive thoughts. If you experience vicarious trauma, it can be difficult to “un-see” disturbing images — whether you saw them in person or on the news/social media.

People who experience vicarious trauma tend to become more anxious about related matters. The constant media coverage of COVID-19, for example, can cause increased anxiety around health-related issues; the many reports of police brutality can cause increased anxiety around personal safety.

Here are some things you can do to mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma:

  • Take a 24-hour break from the news and social media. If you can, make it a full weekend. (Don’t worry about missing groundbreaking news. Trust me, you’ll hear about it.)

  • Use mindfulness or prayer to stay grounded.

  • Increase the positive things that you do that bring joy to your life. Throw a frisbee around the backyard. Read an engrossing novel. Pull out old family photos or movies. Play a game.

Related: Finding Awe in Everyday Moments

  • Stay connected with people who make you feel loved. Human connection is a necessary component of healing from trauma. While the pandemic is making it harder (in some cases, impossible) to spend time in person with family and friends, keep in touch by phone or better yet, FaceTime or other video chat platforms that allow you to see loved one’s faces.

  • Practice self-care. With COVID restricting our usual “go-to” wellness options, you might need to get creative. Look for a yoga studio that offers outdoor classes. Find an online fitness program. Carve out “alone time” at home to journal.

  • Volunteer or participate in advocacy activities that take you outside of your own sphere. It feels good to help others. Contributing to a greater cause helps provide meaning and purpose.

  • If you’re a parent, try to limit your child’s exposure to news coverage of traumatic events. Keep the lines of communication open; talk about the things they see and hear — and how they feel about them. Model healthy coping mechanisms to help them learn by your example.

  • Most importantly, know that you’re not alone. The current state of affairs is affecting everyone in varying degrees. If you find that your symptoms become too difficult to manage on your own, reach out to a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment.

You don’t have to go this alone. 

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

If you think you might be suffering from PTSD and would like to learn more about treatment with one of our qualified trauma therapists, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.


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