Vicarious traumatization, also known as vicarious trauma or secondary trauma, is a specific form of trauma that is caused by secondhand exposure to traumatic events such as school shootings. Simply hearing about or watching footage of such an event can catalyze trauma. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to this form of trauma, which is also known as secondary traumatic stress.
The spate of national tragedies in recent decades has led to an increase in vicarious trauma. Today, teens and young adults have constant access to news and firsthand accounts of horrific events. Most teenagers who are indirectly exposed to trauma in these ways have an immediate reaction of discomfort or fear. However, they are usually able to recover and move forward without continued distress.
But some teens struggle to recover from vicarious trauma and suffer from the range of additional symptoms. The effects of traumatic stress often worsen over time. For these young people, additional support may be necessary in the form of treatment.
The Spread of Vicarious Trauma in the United States
In the past, vicarious traumatization mainly affected people in helping professions, such as rescue workers, police officers, and therapists. However, with the increase in media coverage of traumatic events, more people are bearing witness to tragic events—causing this to become more common. Examples of this trauma include exposure to school shootings and other events involving gun violence, war, police brutality, and sexual assault. Research shows that this increased media exposure is directly correlated to stress-related symptoms in people who closely follow such stories.
According to the American Psychological Association, as many as 85 percent of youth are exposed—directly or indirectly—to violence or other traumatic events. Some of these teens will develop signs of vicarious trauma. Given this danger, parents, school professionals, and other mentors and caregivers will benefit from understanding the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma in teenagers. Training and prevention techniques are essential for those who work with this population.
Signs of Vicarious Trauma in Teens
This form of trauma can produce both physical and emotional reactions. Here are the most common signs of vicarious trauma in teenagers:
- Numbness and shock
- Feeling helpless and sad
- Increased anxiety, leading to mood swings and irritability
- Social isolation, including emotional distance from family and friends
- Fear of similar events happening to them in the future
- Difficulty breathing, being short of breath
- Muscle and joint pain for no apparent reason
- Increased heart rate, panic attacks, racing pulse
- Desire to take revenge
- Disturbances in sleep and eating habits.
Over time, this trauma can progress into teen PTSD. Hence, the long-term effects include suicidal thoughts, an increase in risk-taking behaviors, and difficulty forming relationships with peers.
Furthermore, the symptoms of vicarious trauma include a sense of survivor’s guilt. Although they are not actual survivors, teenagers now feel like survivors due to their secondhand experience of those events through the media.
Vicarious Trauma Prevention for Vulnerable Adolescents
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to external influences. And that means they may be more likely to experience trauma and related issues. A study examining the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide found that PTSD is more common in adolescents than adults.
In addition, teens with existing mental health challenges, poor emotional regulation skills, and weak support systems are more vulnerable to traumatization. Moreover, females are more likely than males to experience vicarious PTSD.
Therefore, prevention strategies are necessary to protect teens and young adults from vicarious trauma. Here are five prevention techniques:
- Raising awareness about this form of trauma and secondary survivor’s guilt
- Limiting media and social media consumption about tragic events
- Promoting positive self-care, like good nutrition, exercise, and sleep
- Connecting teens to their community and what is happening around them
- Empowering teens by providing opportunities to help others.
Untreated, vicarious traumatization will often become worse, causing future difficulties. However, with treatment, teens can overcome the difficulties presented by secondary trauma.
Effective Approaches for Healing Vicarious Trauma
A number of vicarious trauma treatment approaches can help teens process the weight of vicarious stress. These include clinical modalities such as Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
In addition, while coping with effects of trauma, it is helpful for teens to build new, healthy habits:
- Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation
- Peaceful contact with nature, like a walk in a forest or on the beach
- Processing the trauma and its aftermath in support groups or with caring friends and relatives
- Journaling about their experience as a way to make sense of their story
- Unplugging regularly from social media and limiting exposure to news updates
- Making daily gratitude lists that help them appreciate the good in their world.
Vicarious Trauma Treatment and Support for Teens
Newport Academy offers support for parents, mental healthcare providers, school professionals, and physicians who are seeking resources to help teens heal from this form of trauma. We can also provide consultation for providers who are coping with trauma and compassion fatigue.
Contact us today to learn more about how we can work with your family or community to help young people overcome the mental health challenges of secondary trauma.
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PNAS. 2014 Jan;111(1): 93–98.