I originally published this article in January of 2012, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Back then I was a life and business coach. Certainly my current work of facilitating writing workshops has me holding space for folks in a different way, but vicarious trauma can happen to anyone in any line of work at any time. With the level of chronic stress and trauma most of us are experiencing during the pandemic, it seems important to reiterate that, and share this article again.
You may have noticed fewer blog posts lately. I’m not writing as much since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Something about that event—that particular explosion of mass violence—feels like it shattered the joy that usually fuels my writing. Right now my joy is scattered, jagged fragments littering the soft floor of my gut.
I have a theory about why I’m feeling this way, and since I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one, I thought I’d share.
A good friend of mine (Elizabeth Venart) is a licensed professional counselor who educates other helping professionals about something called Vicarious Trauma (VT). Wikipedia defines VT this way…
Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers’ perceived meaning and hope.
After listening to Elizabeth during several workshops when I was a guest presenter, I’ve become more aware of how something similar to VT (though not VT itself) might show up in my own practice. I just wasn’t expecting it to show up in response to events outside my practice.
Here’s what caught my attention. VT is a process. Its effects are cumulative, occurring when an empathetic listener repeatedly witnesses traumatic stories. And, as you saw in the definition above, it disrupts spirituality, meaning and hope.
According to research collected by Mother Jones, in 2012 there have been seven mass shootings in the United States. There have also been several huge natural disasters: Hurricane Sandy, the midwest drought, widespread wildfires.
Because of the internet and instant media coverage, we witness these traumatic events with excruciatingly intimate immediacy. It is raw, confusing, inescapable, and overwhelming.
Even if we were only attentive to coverage of major U.S. events this year, we still witnessed repeated trauma. Even if we avoid watching and listening to the news and reading newspapers we still met with these tragedies through social media. And none of this takes into account tragic events in our personal lives.
My joy—and my writing mojo—shattered because the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school was the proverbial last straw, as far as my nervous system was concerned.
To be clear, I’m NOT experiencing VT (or PTSD or secondary trauma). But I have gone past the edge of my resilience. My shattered joy and lost writing mojo are signaling for my attention. They are asking me to re-group and restore my resilience, hopefully before I’m witness to any more trauma.
There are no quick fixes for this, and I don’t think there should be. Whenever something shatters, you have the chance to learn—to transform beliefs and habits—rather than sticking the pieces together and heading back to the way things were. The journey does take willingness and patience, I can tell you that much.
Not knowing exactly how to repair my shattered joy is disconcerting. But, relying on my inner guidance, reaching out to friends and colleagues, and doing extra self-care seem to be a good place to start. I’ll let you know how it goes…
(I am obviously not a mental health professional. If you are, I welcome your thoughts and corrections if I’ve inadvertently given any misinformation.)