Monday, October 29, 2007

Vicarious Traumatization

After eleven years of providing direct nursing care---all in ambulatory settings, mind you---I wonder when it will be time to take a break and approach my work in the healthcare field from another vantage point. While I, like many nurses, thrive on the interpersonal relationships which nursing engenders, I also long for a rest from the emotional tugging which is part and parcel of my work.

But what is it about that "emotional tugging" that is so exhausting, you ask? The answer, to a large extent, is vicarious traumatization, wherein the act of bearing witness to the trauma of others can lead to internalization of trauma and psychic distress by the clinician. Several studies cited on the American Psychological Association website conclude that clinicians with their own personal trauma histories are more likely to experience deleterious effects when working closely with patients experiencing trauma.

Taking into consideration that the majority of my patients have suffered multiple traumas and live chaotic and difficult lives, I am consistently in a place of feeling unable to fully relieve the suffering of those around me. Confronted day after day by individuals whose suffering continues largely unabated, I surmise that my own level of suffering appears to have concurrently elevated, perhaps in response to those for whom my efforts seem to have little effect.

Many of my patients experience depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other forms of mental illness and psychic distress, not to mention chronic pain. Interestingly, my own depression, distress and physical pain symptoms have become significantly exacerbated in the last few years, leading me to more fully appreciate and understand my patients' suffering based on my own experience. Having been diagnosed myself with PTSD six years ago following a friend's murder, I appreciate the long-lasting effects of such experiences and the immeasurable difficulty of recovery.

The concept of vicarious traumatization is one which we all---clinicians and non-clinicians alike---might understand, but it is only now, as my own physical and psychic suffering has become augmented, that I more fully comprehend the insidiousness of its impact on the unwary clinician.

Luckily, this Thursday, I will attend a "Behavioral Health Grand Rounds" at a local hospital, where several experts on vicarious traumatization will present their research, their findings, and their recommendations to those of us interested to know more. As my leave of absence approaches at the end of this week, this particular presentation could not be more timely. I welcome this information, and also welcome the self-realization that it may engender.
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