Writers and editors: symptoms of vicarious trauma
Writers and editors who work with traumatic material (i.e. stories involving descriptions of traumatic events) can suffer ‘vicarious trauma’. That is, although they are not the victim of the traumatic experiences they are writing about or editing, through working closely with the survivor’s descriptions of their experiences, the writer/editor can suffer trauma as a result of working with that material.
Symptoms of vicarious trauma
If you are affected by vicarious trauma you may experience one or more of the following symptoms.
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Anger, irritability, emotional ups and downs, tearfulness
- Intrusive images (flashbacks, memories, dreams) of the traumatic material
- ‘Survivor guilt’ (for not having suffered the trauma in the stories/material)
- Hyper-sensitive when you read or see other violent or abusive material (in books, movies etc.)
- Lack of compassion for (or being dismissive of) others’ problems or situations which you perceive as unimportant, compared to the traumatic material
- Avoidance of your usual relationships/responsibilities, and avoiding intimacy
- Escapism through excessive eating or alcohol/drugs (including coffee) or binge-watching movies
- Feeling detached and disconnected
- Relationship problems (arguments with or detachment from your loved one/s)
- Avoiding social situations, and feeling you have little in common with others
- Work-life balance is impaired; you are spending too much time working, and when you’re not working you can’t ‘switch off’ work or relax.
- Hypervigilance and/or feeling highly stressed; over-anxious about others
- Feeling exhausted
- Stress-related symptoms e.g. bodily tension, psoriasis, rash, aches and pains, headaches
- When you finally take a few days off (to have a break from work) you get sick.
Are you suffering any of the above symptoms?
If you’re suffering any of the above symptoms, you need to change your approach and use some tools to minimise your trauma. Here are some rules to follow when writing, editing or conducting interviews involving traumatic subject material: Rules for managing vicarious trauma.
If you feel you are managing your symptoms well, or you don’t believe you are being negatively affected by your work, it is probably safe for you to continue to work on the traumatic material.
However, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and don’t feel able to apply the Rules for managing vicarious trauma (e.g. you are haunted by the traumatic material despite trying not to think about it; or you can’t help sitting up late at night, drinking) then something needs to change. One of my editor colleagues said it like this: ‘when your bucket is full, you have to allow it to empty before you start refilling it again. Otherwise it will overflow’. That is, if you keep adding more and more trauma to your already traumatised self, you may end up having an emotional, mental and/or physical breakdown.
If you aren’t managing your symptoms, you should take a couple of weeks’ break from working with the traumatic material. You don’t have to ‘stop work’ completely; you can continue working on other projects, as long as they don’t involve the traumatic material. After taking that time out, if you are still suffering any of the above symptoms, you should seek help from either a professional counsellor or (if appropriate) a mentor/advisor.
Note: Tend Academy notes that thoughts of hopelessness or suicide are not ‘normal’ symptoms of vicarious trauma. Anyone experiencing these thoughts needs to seek professional help.
More information about vicarious trauma
- What is vicarious trauma (and its symptoms)
- Recovering from vicarious trauma: an editor’s case study
The above information has been sourced from:
- My direct experience of all 16 of the above-listed symptoms of vicarious trauma, and the experiences shared by my professional editor colleagues
- Belinda Pollard’s oral presentation, ‘Editing personal trauma stories – practical tips to limit the emotional cost’, at the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) Beyond the Page conference in May 2019
- Journalism and vicarious trauma by Sam Dubberley and Michelle Grant
- Joyful Heart Foundation
- Tend Academy (CA).
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