The Impact of Exposure to Traumatic Material
Protecting the Protectors: support for content moderators, analysis and researchers.
“My job involves me viewing terrorist and extreme violent events online. I have started to experience a reoccurring dream, where I imagine my family becoming victims of the events I have seen on the screen’ (Content moderator).
‘Since listening to stories from refugees and the traumatic events they have experienced, I keep getting intrusive images of their stories’ (researcher).
‘I feel highly anxious all the time. If anyone asks me to do work that I know will expose me to further traumatic material I feel I can’t cope’ (analysis).
The above quotes are common statements that we hear from staff indirectly exposed to traumatic material through their work, whether listening to witnesses’ stories, viewing graphical content, or reading disturbing material. This work can cause significant psychological distress to these individuals. Cat Carter (2015), who works for Save the Children International, shares her story of suffering Vicarious Trauma for five years, after listening to countless stories of children’s suffering around the world. Her biggest regret is that she didn’t reach out for support earlier. The preventative factor was ‘guilt’, ‘who I am to say I am struggling, when I am listening to all these awful stories of others suffering’. During the research for my book, ‘Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers’ (Dunkley, F. 2018), this became a common theme, that individuals minimalised their own self-care for the greater cause, often feeling guilty, and therefore, preventing them for asking for the necessary and vital psychological support. Cat described how suffering vicarious trauma for five years resulted in her diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She was able to access Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which enabled her to recover so she could share her story of healing at a Ted Talk on The Impact of Disaster.
At FD Consultants we offer trauma specialist services and critical incident care (https://fdconsultants.net/services/trauma-and-crisis-support/). This means our trauma therapists are trained in EMDR and/or TF-CBT. These are the recommended approaches to trauma therapy by WHO, APA and NICE guidelines. If your work exposes you to trauma or you support people who have experienced trauma it is vital that you are aware of these approaches to recover from trauma, as they work very differently than general talking therapy.
When we view traumatic material online it is hard to look away. Our instinctive survival response is drawn to look at danger. I describe this response in my ‘Trauma Awareness’ workshops, that we can become narrow visioned to focus in on threat. We may drive past a road traffic accident and will ourselves not to look, but automatically we are drawn to look, as we notice others slow down to get a better view. Our brains need to checkout danger before we can reassure ourselves that we are safe. Therefore, when we are viewing traumatic material online as part of our work, we may also experience the same draw, and find it hard to look away, resulting in not taking healthy breaks. This material can also become addictive as it fuels our system with adrenalin.
Signs and Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma
FD Consultants clients need to trail through videos of terrorist content, perhaps witnessing beheading videos, cruelty to animals, human trafficking, or identify images to use as evidence for war crimes. Sometimes having to watch these events in real time as they are unfolding. These individuals do an incredible job and are often very resilient in terms of what they must cope with. Although, the cumulative impact of this trauma exposure will have a detrimental impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
‘The work we do has a real impact on society, I do it to help people. I am aware that this work may have a shelf-life, and I am glad our organisation offers yearly psychological screenings so a professional can monitor our mental health’ (Content moderator).
We highlight some of the symptoms of vicarious trauma below:
- Strong emotions.Vicarious trauma can leave people feeling helpless, angry, despairing or sad. It can also prompt feelings of guilt and shame. Survivor or bystander guilt describes the discomfort of being safe and well whilst being aware that other people are suffering or have experienced harm.
- Numbness. Vicarious trauma can also prompt people to experience emotional numbness or a sense of disconnection. This is often the mind and body’s way of protecting us from feeling overwhelmed by exposure to traumatic material.
- Overinvolvement, rescuing and/or erosion of boundaries.When assisting those who have experienced trauma it is easy to become overinvolved, to feel we are the only ones who can help, and to take on a ‘rescuing’ approach. This can lead to lack of boundaries, which is a common feature of vicarious trauma – working beyond the remit and hours of our roles and allowing less and less time for ourselves.
- Avoidance.Vicarious trauma may also lead people to step back from contact with those whose stories feature trauma. In a professional capacity they may call in sick or seek to avoid working with certain patients, clients or service-users. In their personal lives they may avoid people whose circumstances may expose them to further traumatic material. It can also lead people to isolate themselves and disconnect from their usual social interactions.
- Changes to outlook or worldview.The profound nature of vicarious trauma can lead to changes in how we see the world around us. Despair or disillusionment may lead people to feel the world is no longer safe, or to question any faith they have. Anger at the injustice or harm others have suffered may also fuel a desire to fight back against those seen as being responsible.
- Intrusive thoughts or images. Trauma affects our ability to process and store memories in the usual way. Vicarious trauma may therefore mean we find distressing thoughts or images entering our minds against our will. We may project the trauma stories we have been exposed to onto our love ones when day dreaming or nightmares.
- Preoccupied with traumatic material.As viewing traumatic material fuels us with adrenalin it can become addictive, or difficult to walk away from. Saturation of traumatic material can lead us to feel jumpy, disorganised or overwhelmed.
- Changes to physical health and habits.Vicarious trauma can leave people feeling exhausted and susceptible to aches, pains and other physical complaints such as digestive problems or an irregular heartbeat. This is often a consequence of a trauma response playing out within the body. Changes to sleeping patterns, appetite and diet may become apparent, alongside a desire to use alcohol or other substances to escape or relieve symptoms.
If you feel you are suffering from any of the symptoms above, or your work could benefit from one of our ‘Trauma awareness’ trainings, then please do get in touch on [email protected]. If you want to read more about the impact of exposure to traumatic material, you can download our vicarious trauma and trauma information guide sheets on our resource page: https://fdconsultants.net/resources/
Fiona Dunkley, MBACP (Snr. Accred.) UKRCP. ESTSS. EMDR.
Founder FD Consultants – Psychosocial Support & Trauma Specialist Services
Date: June 2023