How I found out about Vicarious Trauma, by Tanya Wilson


Although I am now a psychotherapist and coach, my first career was as a massage
therapist. It was in this profession as a remedial massage therapist that I first experienced vicarious trauma. Although finding out what this was, and understanding how it affected me, didn’t come to light until many years after the initial event, which is part of the reasoning behind me sharing this story with you today.

As they say, knowledge is power and if I had been aware of vicarious trauma, what it was, and how to recognise and deal with it, my recovery would have looked quite different I imagine! So I am telling my story to empower you with the knowledge of vicarious trauma and some of its symptoms. It is important to note here that absolutely anyone can experience vicarious trauma, it’s not reserved just for emergency services, people in helping professions or the like.

In my first experience of vicarious trauma, I was running my own busy natural health centre, and seeing many clients. As I trained as a therapist in the early 90’s and had been naturally tuned to a helping profession, I was working on a belief system that I was there to listen and be the empathic ear for my clients, as well as providing remedial services. At one particular time, I had an influx of clients that were working remotely and would come in to the city to see me on their days off. These clients, in a variety of vocations, had been working in remote communities, and would relay events and information to me regarding children who had been traumatised in these communities. I would often allow clients to speak about their experiences as they were having their massage. The body is great at storing tension, information and stress, so of course as the body releases, so too does the mind, and often, as any therapist reading this will know, then out comes a memory, or some stored information that needs to be verbalised.

I remember having flashbacks around this time, when I would drift off to sleep at night, once the busy-ness of the day had subsided, about what the clients had shared. Often my mind would conjure up images of the events, so I would see in my minds eye what had happened, even though I’d never even met the people or been to the places where the traumas had taken place.Often this would keep me awake for hours, as I tried to push the thoughts and images away. I was having a tug of war in my mind, and anxiety creep higher and higher as this tug of war went on. Of course this dynamic led to sleep deprivation and insomnia eventually, which was always followed by then having to go back to work the following morning for another physically and emotionally demanding day. 

This time period and the content of what was verbalised by clients to me at that particular time, is my most pertinent memory of vicarious trauma, and was the first event/time period that came up in therapy for me, years later when I was having a series of personal counselling sessions with a psychologist. The term the psychologist used to label my experience was secondary trauma, which is an alternative term sometimes used to describe vicarious trauma.

As I progressed through a series of counselling sessions, many more instances of vicarious trauma were recalled, and again, they were all instances where I was providing a service to clients of remedial therapy and trauma memories and past events of a traumatic nature were shared with me by the client. (This type of sharing was often unexpected, and took me by surprise, and unlike the sharing that I invite and prepare for in a professional counselling session now-days, this sharing was spontaneous, and unexpected)through therapy, I was able to work through these vicarious traumas, and this experience in therapy educated me about what vicarious trauma was, the effects it had on me specifically, and I also began to (and this bit happened over a period of a few years)understand my role in protecting myself.

Today, in conjunction with a fabulous colleague of mine, I am committed to educating others about vicarious trauma. Trauma & You – Vicarious Trauma Training is our one day training program that is open to all people from all walks of life.

I invite you to join us for this important and valuable training, where you will learn how to identify and protect yourself against vicarious trauma, along with many self care and health and wellbeing strategies to keep yourself safe and well.



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