They need our support, whether it is just being there to sit quietly with them, or listening to their stories, or helping them with the many processes of the criminal justice system. Our support during this time is a vital part of healing, and should be provided in a respectful way, that takes note of their needs at the time.

What are the symptoms of vicarious trauma?

But, although necessary, supporting survivors is not always easy. Listening to their story can cause us emotional and psychological pain, which might at times feel unbearable. This is what is commonly called ‘secondary’ or ‘vicarious’ trauma. 

Admitting that you’re struggling with the trauma does not mean you’re letting anyone down. It’s your first step to being a better supporter.

Read more: Violence in South Africa – have we run out of empathy?

The symptoms of vicarious trauma can present like the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and like a survivor, you might go through your own phases of recovery. You might experience a range of emotions like denial, fear, frustration, guilt, anger, and grief, and at times these feelings might feel overwhelming. 

There are emotional, behavioural, physiological, cognitive, and spiritual symptoms that you should look out for so that you know when it’s time for you to get some support yourself.

You cannot be strong all the time – nobody is! Admitting that you’re struggling with the trauma does not mean you’re letting anyone down. It’s your first step to being a better supporter. 

What can I do to cope with my vicarious trauma?

Here are a few things you can do to take care of you, so you can keep on taking care of the people who need you.

Be honest with yourself, and the person you’re supporting

If you are supporting someone, tell them how you are feeling. Although this might be difficult, it’s important to make sure both you and the survivor are able to get through this together. It also means that when you need to take a break, they understand what’s going on, and are less likely to think that you are rejecting them. 

Practice self-care

Making time in your day to do things that you love, that make you happy, and that bring pleasure into your life is critically important when you’re supporting someone who has gone through a trauma, and when you’re experiencing trauma yourself. Reminding yourself that there is happiness in life does not diminish or ignore the difficulties, it helps you to survive them.

...talk about how you’re feeling, and allow yourself to be supported too.

Read more: I hear my neighbour being abused - what is the best thing to do?

Seek counselling

If your feelings are overwhelming you and having a negative impact on your life, work/school, and relationships, it’s time to seek some counselling. 

Many of the organisations that support survivors of domestic and sexual violence also offer family and friend counselling. Make use of these valuable services, talk about how you’re feeling, and allow yourself to be supported too. Just like the person you’re supporting, you deserve to feel good again. 

Try LifeLine’s national counselling line 0861 322 322. Or, use their website to find out where you can go for a face-to-face counselling session.