Can the Partners of Childhood Trauma Survivors Experience Vicarious Trauma?
You would think the answer is obvious: “Yes,” and “Of course.” But a search for the term in conjunction with partners/ families and trauma shows few results.
In fact, most books, blog posts, and articles reference vicarious traumatization and related terms in relation to paid helping professions, especially when it comes to trauma.
What is vicarious traumatization?
First of all, vicarious means:
Experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another.
Vicarious traumatization means the following: (I like Babette Rothschild’s definition. Remember, it is written for therapists.)
Even when a therapist was not actually involved in the client’s trauma, she can still vicariously experience it in her nervous system. The result is similar to feeling vicarious excitement while watching someone on a roller-coaster on television, or hearing a breathless detailed description of a horseback ride.
~ Babette Rothschild. Help for the Helper: Self-Care Strategies for Managing Burnout and Stress
Several months ago, I became aware of my own concerning physical and mental symptoms:
- Hand tremors
- Increasing back pain
- Mental Fog
Add to that, these thoughts:
- My nerves are shot
- I feel like like I am hanging on by a thread
Although at the time, I was meeting with a therapist where I talked about my situation as partner to a survivor, I felt no release of physical anxiety. Instead, the anxiety increased and soon included other physical and mental symptoms. The only calming activity was my regular four times per week running routine. My running brought clarity to my thoughts and peace to my body. I physically and emotionally felt a release, which enabled me to keep working and managing our home. Recognizing the consistent benefits of this ‘release’ prompted me to consider the impact of my survivor-partner’s nervous system on my body, my mental health, and my nervous system.
Was my nervous system impacted by living with a survivor and exposure to his traumatic responses? Yes.
Was I experiencing vicarious traumatization? Absolutely.
Why Partners of Childhood Trauma Survivors Experience Vicarious Trauma?
Here are a few definitions to explain why:
- Empathy: The ability to share the feelings and experiences of another.
- Emotional Contagion: This means experiencing the feelings of the sufferer as a result of exposure to the sufferer.
- Empathic Ability: The motivation to act to provide help.
- The sensory pathways of the nervous system communicate empathy through sight, sound, hearing, taste. Even imagining a story or conversation lights up these pathways.
- Mirror neurons evoke imitation and feeling of another’s movements, gestures, postures, and facial expressions.
- Somatic empathy, described in detail by Babette Rothschild, is the physical experience/feeling of another.
While only a brief overview, these definitions provide insight as to why partners (and other family members) may develop physical, mental, and psychological symptoms similar to those of a survivor. Empathy is part of being in a family. It makes sense that the suffering of a family member would light up these empathetic pathways. However, in an environment of chronic exposure to a survivor’s distress without the opportunity to learn skills to self-regulate or access to supports that allow family members to take breaks, partners and family members suffer too.
Vicarious traumatization is a real and under-recognized issue for partners of survivors. In addition to awareness, there need to be:
- Greater family and partner supports including individual support groups for partners and adult children of survivors.
- Increased training opportunities for trauma-informed professionals to learn about the familial impact of living with a survivor.
- A greater number of trauma-informed practitioners who teach nervous system regulation.
Burnout in Families: The Systemic Costs of Caring. Charles R. Figley, Phd, editor.
Help for the Helper: Self-Care Strategies for Managing Burnout and Stress. Babette Rothschild.
Support Group for Partners to Survivors with Complex Trauma. A closed Facebook group facilitated by me.