Talking to survivors of trauma also affects the helper. For all helpers empathy is an essential aspect of being a good helper. This is also a source for compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatisation or secondary traumatic stress (STS). How are helpers to manage their own stress? Early recognition and awareness is crucial to be resilient to these symptoms and prevent burnt out.
Awareness of this is important for workers in areas of conflict and disaster, and in extreme environments such as these, people may be more vulnerable to secondary traumatisation. We also know that professionals under this kind of stress may be at risk to perform less efficiently and not perform as they would normally do. Even large organizations that have the resources and knowledge about this particular kind of stress may have reduced capacity to deal with or take care of the affected personnel.
This might be because managers are not adequately trained to spot symptoms, are unprepared for early intervention and prevention, are not equipped to assist, or have poor follow-up procedures. These problems are much more acute for local helpers, who usually have few resources and very little support. All helpers who work closely with traumatised people should take the time to make themselves aware of their own emotional state, and what they need to do to protect themselves from exhaustion while continuing to work with compassion.
Being exposed vicariously to traumatic events, for example by listening to catastrophic testimonies, may generate some of the same trauma reactions that would occur if you were involved in a serious incident. You may struggle to manage your emotions, have problems in your relationships, find decision-making difficult, have physical problems (aches and pains, illnesses), feel hopeless, think your life has no meaning, or experience a collapse in self-esteem.
It is important to develop strategies to cope with situations that might cause vicarious trauma-reactions. What helps you to take your mind off your work or your thoughts? How can you rest your body as well as your mind? Does an activity inspire you or put you in a better mood?
For many local helpers, there may often not be any support or resources at all to deal with this. If possible, meet regularly with other helpers to discuss your experiences and feelings, or do things together. If there are too few helpers in your area to create a support group, find friends and other people you trust with whom you can share your feelings without breaking the confidentiality of the survivors you are helping. On HHRI´s thematic page for HHRI thematic page on helping the helpers we have gathered links that can be useful for all persons engaged in this kind of important but heavy work.