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Vicarious trauma in nursing

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Vicarious trauma Vicarious trauma occurs with prolonged exposure to another person’s traumatic encounters

Nurses ease the suffering of others – whether that be physical or mental suffering. But, what impact can this have on nurses? We take a look at vicarious trauma, including how to recognise and avoid it.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma can develop in people who are exposed to other people’s trauma over a prolonged period. For nurses, vicarious trauma can be the ‘cost of caring’ as they witness their patients go through illness, pain, fear, violence, abuse, death, and physical or mental health issues.

The consequences of vicarious trauma can be vast, leading to cognitive, psychological, and physiological changes.1 Those with vicarious trauma may become occupied with thoughts about those they are caring for and may become obsessive with work. This is commonly observed in caretakers working in hospitals.1 However, non-frontline nurses are also at risk.

Vicarious trauma, secondary trauma or burnout?

It is important not to confuse vicarious trauma with burnout or secondary trauma. Burnout is a reaction to long-term job stress and is mainly characterised by exhaustion, loss of interest, and job dissatisfaction. The term ‘secondary trauma’ or ‘secondary traumatic stress’ is often used interchangeably with vicarious trauma. Secondary trauma can happen when you hear of someone else’s first-hand experience with trauma.

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