A Well-Deserved Day of Awareness and Expression

One of Endhtebacklog.org’s policy focuses is on ensuring healing and justice for survivors of sexual assault. There’s a lot of people behind this effort and we have tremendous respect for the work of those who help others cope with trauma. This work is not always easy. Today Chris Vargo, Joyful Heart’s New York Manager of Programs shares a bit about vicarious trauma and Joyful Heart’s Heal the Healers program.

Last month, the Joyful Heart Foundation brought individuals from two important worlds together to highlight a commonality between them: their shared risk for developing symptoms of what is known as vicarious trauma (VT).

The JHF Heal the Healers program views the community of individuals who have committed their lives to provide services to and seek justice for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse as healers, and we believe our healers must take care of mind, body and spirit. For this particular workshop, we brought together criminalists from the largest Medical Examiner’s Office in the United States, the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s (OCME) Forensic Biology Department and the New York County Assistant District’s Attorneys (ADAs).

Both of these teams are integral to the efforts to achieve justice for victims of crime and abuse. Criminalists who spend their days analyzing forensic evidence collected from victims of rape and the ADAs working to prove cases of rape and abuse beyond a reasonable doubt are among these individuals at risk for developing VT as a result of being continuously exposed to the details of trauma and violence.

Karen Saakvitne, PhD and Laurie Anne Pearlman, PhD originally defined VT in 1990:

“Vicarious trauma is a pervasive effect on the identity, world-view, psychological needs, beliefs, and memory systems of therapists who treat trauma survivors.”

VT has been synonymously used with the more commonly known terms like compassion fatigue, secondary traumatization or burn out. But according to Babette Rothchild MSW, LCSW (2006), what distinguishes VT from these other conditions is the presence of the cumulative effects that occur within the [healer’s] nervous system as she/he bears witness to details of trauma such that the [healer] were actually experiencing the event itself. Simply put, secondary trauma is experienced as feeling extremely overwhelmed when hearing a client’s traumatic experiences (Rothchild 2006).

The workshop, entitled Transforming Trauma, was held at the OCME’s office and presented by Joyful Heart’s collaborative partner, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship: an Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. It provided participants with the opportunity to identify and enhance their own awareness of their experiences with VT and offered tools for how to manage the effects of trauma exposure in a healthy and sustainable way.

Laura guided the group through identifying what she refers to as their “trauma exposure response, the transformation that takes place within us as a result of the exposure to the suffering of other living beings and our planet.” While unique to each individual, is a universal experience. Laura says that “it can be deliberate or inadvertent exposure, formal or informal contact, paid or volunteer work,” and as a result, the individual comes to view the world differently over time.


  • Feeling Helpless and Hopeless “It’s really hard for me to get out of bed in the morning.”
  • A Sense that One Can Never Do Enough “There is no way I can ever get all the work done that I should.”
  • Hypervigilance “I must keep my guard up at all times to keep myself and those around me safe.”
  • Diminished Creativity “I can’t seem to come up with even a single possible solution to this problem.”
  • Inability to Embrace Complexity “There is good and bad, right and wrong.”
  • Minimizing “This person is making a bigger deal of her experience than it really is.”
  • Chronic Exhaustion/Physical Ailments “I am tired all the time.”
  • Inability to Listen/Deliberate Avoidance “The best part of my day is when I don’t have to do my job.”
  • Dissociative Moment “Can you repeat that? My mind was somewhere else.”
  • Sense of Persecution “My superiors are trying to make my job harder.”
  • Guilt “It’s hard to enjoy anything good in life.”
  • Fear “I always feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop”
  • Anger and Cynicism “I may be a little more jaded than I used to be.”
  • Inability to Empathize/Numbness “Feelings? What feelings?”
  • Addictions “I can’t start this afternoon’s meeting until I grab a cup of coffee.”
  • Grandiosity: An inflated Sense of Importance Related to One’s Work “If I wasn’t here, this wouldn’t get done.”

Participants in the workshop dance and express themselves through creative movement

While learning of ways to mitigate the affects of their trauma exposure, the afternoon session offered the opportunity for participants to dance and express themselves under the guidance of JHF’s Consultant and wellness practitioner, Allison Talis. Allison also took the participants through breathing and meditation techniques, giving them the time to acknowledge their efforts in their work and to take a break from their daily routine.

Workshops participants are taken through breathing and meditation techniques

By the end of the day, another common theme emerged among the group: participants seemed to feel a profound appreciation for the opportunity to be taken care of for the day, to reflect on their own experiences and to find value in the need to be well – mind, body, and spirit.

To read more about vicarious trauma, please see our second issue of Reunion, devoted to healing the healers, or pick up a copy of Laura’s book, Transforming Trauma: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. If you would like to request copies of the magazine for yourself or an event you are hosting for the healing community, please email reunion@joyfulheartfoundation.org. For more information on our Heal the Healers program, please visit http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/healthehealers.htm.

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