Vicarious Trauma: When Others’ Pain is Hurting You

The secondary pain of trauma and tragedy.

Karen Nimmo
On The Couch
Published in
5 min readJun 10, 2024

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

“I literally can’t bear it,” a friend said.

She’d (once again) tuned into the television news and been slammed with stories of other people’s loss, grief and devastation — natural disaster, road accidents, senseless murder, war, poverty.

“It’s too much,” she said, recounting a couple of stories that she couldn’t stop thinking about and had had her in tears. “And yet I feel guilty if I don’t keep up with it — I want to empathise with what they’re going through.”

What she was experiencing was a normal reaction to traumatic events, often reported by people who are not directly affected but find themselves highly sensitive to, and extremely empathetic, to the suffering of others.

Clinically, it’s known as vicarious trauma — the cumulative psychological effect of being exposed to someone else’s distress. It is most commonly seen in first responders — police, emergency workers, medical personal, journalists and the like — but with 24/7 news coverage in our lives, its reach is spreading.

People who struggle with this secondary type of trauma report anxiety, extreme emotional responses (or a numbness) and often feelings of fear and intense helplessness.

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Karen Nimmo
On The Couch

Clinical psychologist, author of 4 books. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for health and happiness. karen@onthecouch.co.nz