Writers and editors: rules for managing vicarious trauma
If you are about to launch into an activity or project that involves working or dealing with people who have suffered or are suffering from violence or abuse, you are at risk of suffering vicarious trauma.
What is vicarious trauma?
Vicarious trauma can affect counsellors and health workers, paramedics, police officers, and accident and emergency staff, as well as journalists, editors and writers, who as part of their work, deal with or witness violent or abusive subject matter, violent or abusive people, or traumatised people.
During the past 25 years, I have experienced vicarious trauma as a writer and editor. In the early days, I hadn’t heard of the term ‘vicarious trauma’ although, in retrospect, I was definitely suffering from it. It was only in 2019 that I learned what vicarious trauma is, and that it’s important to practise self-care when working with material about violence or abuse.
So you know the signs of vicarious trauma, check out this list of symptoms: Some symptoms of vicarious trauma.
Rules for writers or editors, for managing vicarious trauma, or minimising the risk of vicarious trauma
If you are engaged in an activity/project that is causing vicarious trauma, or want to look after yourself next time you take on a project that involves writing or editing traumatic material, follow these rules.
- Limit the time you spend working with the traumatic material/traumatised person. Work out your limit for working on that particular activity: depending on how strongly the subject matter is affecting you, you might choose to work on it only a few hours a day, or even just one hour a day. During the rest of the day, don’t think about the subject. Rather, replenish your energy doing other things, so you feel okay before delving back into the project the next day.
- Don’t work at night if you are editing traumatic material. Make sure you end your day in a relaxing way, e.g. socialising, watching a movie or reading a book that’s light-hearted or cheery, not violent or depressing.
- Editor Belinda Pollard, who presented a discussion at a conference I attended, gave this tip for minimising the risk of vicarious trauma when working closely with traumatic material: ‘limit the imagination’. When you have finished working on the activity for the day, don’t think about it any more because if you do, your imagination can take it to another level and you will really suffer. So if you’ve finished work but your mind keeps wandering back to the subject, move it away to another topic and keep doing this until it leaves you alone.
- Be aware that one of the symptoms of suffering vicarious trauma is drinking more (or taking more drugs, if that is your thing). It’s okay to relax but if you start to over-indulge more often than usual, don’t be afraid to admit you’re being negatively affected by your current writing or editing job. Drinking or drug-taking are temporary fixes and do not help you at all when it comes to dealing with vicarious trauma. Drinking or drug-taking while you are engaged in editing or writing traumatic material is a sign that you need to ask for help.
- Working with violent or abusive subject matter is serious and needs to be treated as such. Therefore, before commencing work, you need to prepare yourself for the serious work you are about to undertake. My method is to ‘ground myself’ by using a little activity to remind myself that my body, mind and spirit are connected to the earth; to make me aware of how deep my roots run, and maximise my energy and strength. Grounding myself puts me into the state of mind I need to be in to work with traumatic material; it prepares me for the task of respecting my subject without taking on its pain. Your method of preparing for the task might be completely different from mine. Do whatever it takes, as long as it works for you, so that you’re grounded before and during the process of working on the traumatic material;
- Or, if you have suffered from vicarious trauma in the past to the extent it has affected your happiness, wellbeing or health, and you have decided to take on another project which you think is likely to cause you vicarious trauma, go to see either a professional counsellor, or a professional mentor, before you start the project. With their help, prepare yourself for being resilient and looking after your mental health during the project.
- After you have finished working on the traumatic material, it’s a good idea to consciously ‘switch off’ from your work, and allow yourself a little down time to recover before moving on to your next task. Even just having a break and a cup of tea, quietly, by yourself, or doing a little gardening, can switch off your thoughts of the traumatic task you have been doing, and switch your mind onto different subjects. This is so you can leave your work where it belongs, and live your life normally. People who understand Reiki will understand the importance of not only ‘switching on’ but also ‘switching off’ once the activity is finished. Again, do whatever works for you.
- Exercise can help keep you emotionally and mentally healthy. Some people walk or run; others swim laps; some do yoga which is far less strenuous but just as helpful to your mental wellbeing as vigorous exercise. If you’re busy, combine a bit of socialising with that exercise (e.g. going for a walk with your family or friends). Do what is best for you and do it for 30 minutes a day, especially if you are engaged in writing or editing traumatic subject matter.
- Where can you ask for help? If you are managing your mental health quite well, but are experiencing some trauma, let your loved ones know you’re finding it difficult to cope with your work so they can cut you a little slack and support you. Talk to colleagues who understand, such as editor or writer colleagues. Friends or family who have suffered from either vicarious trauma or trauma can also offer moral support. If you have a professional mentor, talk to them. Sometimes just saying out loud that you do not feel okay is enough to make you start to feel better; other times you may need to talk about it in more detail; or
- If you are not managing very well (which may include anxiety, depression or poor sleep, or heavy drinking or drug-taking) you definitely need to seek professional help, whether that be from a professional mentor, or a professional counsellor. Such a professional should be able to help, and point you in the right direction for getting back on your feet, mental-health wise.
- Finally, remember that you can always say no. Although it can be tempting to take on the job of editing a manuscript you think is important, it’s more important than anything else to look after your own health. Otherwise, you’re no good to anyone.
- Rules 1 and 2 are not always possible. As writer Louise Milligan has reminded me, sometimes when we’re working on a book of traumatic stories we need to “live and breathe the story while we are working on it. We can’t dip in and out.” This reflects my experience as well. Especially with books that need to be published to a deadline, or involve a massive amount of work, we need to live in the storytellers’ world day in, day out, until the job is done. So when you have to immerse yourself in such a project, where you have to work more than is healthy, keep yourself as healthy as possible by abiding by all the other rules.
- Many professionals who work with traumatic material/survivors do not immerse themselves in the victim’s world; they compassionately work with the victim or write/edit the traumatic material but hold part of themselves back from the work; this enables them to work in the traumatic space without it adversely affecting their lives. A writer/editor’s ability or need to keep their sympathy/feelings within bounds, and the extent to which they should or can do this, depends on the type of material, the length of the project, the writer/editor’s preferred way of working with victims and their stories, and the writer/editor’s ability to immerse (or ‘over-immerse’) themselves in the story while maintaining good mental health.
- Recovering from vicarious trauma: a case study
- Journalism and vicarious trauma (PDF)
- Writers/editors and vicarious trauma (FB page)
All my knowledge on this subject is drawn from:
- my direct experiences of vicarious trauma
- Belinda Pollard‘s and Heather Millar‘s presentations at Beyond the Page (IPEd’s national editors conference) in May 2019
- Lea Scott’s all-day workshop about writing trauma, which covered vicarious trauma, the effects of trauma including vicarious trauma on the brain, self-care and related topics; presented by Queensland Writer’s Centre.
- Reporting Pell presentation, by Louise Milligan, at Bendigo Writers Festival in August 2019; and Louise’s recent comments to me about this article.
- members of Secret Editors Business (closed Facebook group) who have discussed this topic over recent months.
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