Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Preventing Vicarious Trauma: What Counselors Should Know When Working with Trauma Survivors

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Preventing Vicarious Trauma: What Counselors Should Know When Working with Trauma Survivors

Article excerpt

Counselors in all settings work with clients who are survivors of trauma. Vicarious trauma, or counselors developing trauma reactions secondary to exposure to clients' traumatic experiences, is not uncommon. The purpose of this article is to describe vicarious trauma and summarize the recent research literature related to this construct. The Constructivist Self-Development Theory (CSDT) is applied to vicarious trauma, and the implications CSDT has for counselors in preventing and managing vicarious trauma are explored.

Counselors in virtually all settings work with clients who are survivors

of trauma. Trauma can generally be defined as an exposure to a situation in which a person is confronted with an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to self or others' physical well-being (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Client traumas frequently encountered in clinical practice include childhood sexual abuse; physical or sexual assault; natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tornadoes; domestic violence; and school and work-related violence (James & Gilliland, 2001). Many American counselors have recently been faced with a new population of traumatized clients secondary to the recent terrorist attacks on the United States. With estimates indicating that 1 in 6 women (Ratna & Mukergee, 1998) and 1 in 10 men will experience sexual abuse during childhood, and FBI estimates indicating that 1 in 4 women will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime (Heppner et al., 1995), sexual victimization is one of the most commonly presented client traumas. Clients' reactions to traumas are typically intense fear, helplessness, or horror. As a result of the trauma, the person may experience severe anxiety or arousal that was not present prior to the trauma (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

Counselors' reactions to client traumas have historically been characterized as forms of either burnout or counter-transference (Figley, 1995). More recently, the term vicarious trauma (VT; McCann & Pearlman, 1990) has been used to describe counselors' trauma reactions that are secondary to their exposure to clients' traumatic experiences. The construct of VT provides a more complex and sophisticated explanation of counselors' reactions to client trauma and has implications for preventing counselors' VT reactions.

VT has been referred to as involving "profound changes in the core aspects of the therapist's self" (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995b, p. 152). These changes involve disruptions in the cognitive schemas of counselors' identity, memory system, and belief system. VT has been conceptualized as being exacerbated by, and perhaps even rooted in, the open engagement of empathy, or the connection, with the client that is inherent in counseling relationships (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995b). VT reflects exposure of counselors to clients' traumatic material and encompasses the subsequent cognitive disruptions experienced by counselors (Figley, 1995; McCann & Pearlman, 1990). These repeated exposures to clients' traumatic experiences could cause a shift in the way that trauma counselors perceive themselves, others, and the world. These shifts in the cognitive schemas of counselors can have devastating effects on their personal and professional lives. By listening to explicit details of clients' traumatic experiences during counseling sessions, counselors become witness to the traumatic realties that many clients experience (Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995), and this exposure can lead to a transformation within the psychological functioning of counselors.

This article describes VT and how it differs from counselor burnout and countertransference. In addition, this article applies the Constructivist Self-Development Theory (CSDT) to VT, and discusses the implications CSDT has for preventing and managing counselor VT.


Previously, in the professional literature, the term VT was not used; such trauma was referred to as being either a form of burnout or a countertransference reaction (Figley, 1995; McCann & Pearlman, 1990). …

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