How Self-Care Helps Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is common among mental health professionals, and being mindful of self-care is key to addressing it.

“The work we do is very meaningful and rewarding,” said Scott Nebel, PsyD, program manager/psychologist for Child & Family Outpatient and Access Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver. “It can also be very challenging because of the secondary or vicarious trauma we’re exposed to through families who have been through difficult circumstances.”

So, Child & Family Outpatient Services staff at the organization’s North Federal location and Dahlia Campus for Health & Well-Being make it a priority to be proactive about self-care. Every month they complete an activity designed to empower their ability to take care of themselves.

“We already know a lot of this stuff, but we often get into the culture of being too busy to focus on it for ourselves,” said Margaret Brugger, a bilingual Child & Family therapist at North Federal. “We have to remember the importance of slowing down and realizing we’re worth it. There can be so many pressures on us, and taking care of ourselves is often the first thing to go.”

A recent team exercise involved a review of vicarious trauma symptoms, examples of how your body might react and suggestions on what to do if you begin to notice those cues.

They also discuss research on the connection between the brain and the body. Various self-regulation techniques can help the nervous system calm down while in sessions and when listening to co-workers talk about their experiences.

7 Self-Care Techniques

So, what does self-care look like?

“It’s very person-specific,” Scott said. “Everyone’s coping skills are different.”

Try out an idea or two below and see what works for you:

  • Take several moments throughout the day to focus on breathing.
  • Dedicate two or three minutes at the end of each session to do a mindfulness activity.
  • Take a walk during set points throughout the day.
  • Make plans to use your PTO or vacation time.
  • Connect with your co-workers.
  • Take a few minutes to tune into your own home life when you leave the office.
  • Make sure you get the support you need from your supervisor.

“By no means do we view ourselves the experts,” Scott said. “We just try to model something that is really important for us to be talking about.”