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Vicarious Trauma FAQ’s

What is “vicarious trauma”?

This is a phenomenon that is becoming more widely accepted in the archives’ sector, and research into this area is now being carried out. It is sometimes referred to as “secondary trauma” or “indirect trauma”. It describes an unwelcome emotional response in someone who comes into contact with (in the case of archives’ collections) records from the past, such as witness statements, coroner’s reports, and a wide variety of other material, which you may find upsetting.

Vicarious trauma is when you feel emotionally traumatised by what you may be exposed to in our collections, such as the records of an individual, or an organisation’s or institution’s dealings with them. This could be in terms of how that individual was treated, what happened to them, or the language used about them in the records.

This trauma could include feeling upset, angry, tearful, numb, confused or any other emotional response which is unexpected, unwelcome, intrusive, possibly prolonged, difficult to deal with, or which leaves you feeling disturbed and unsettled.

Vicarious trauma is more than feeling just a bit sad; it is where you have a direct, negative, unsettling emotional response to the records you are reading, which leaves you feeling upset. Sometimes this distress may be extreme.

Can you give some examples of vicarious trauma?

Yes; you could be looking at historic lunatic asylum records, or workhouse records, and find that treatments, or institutional care, given to individuals – some of whom may be your ancestors – falls below what we would expect today, and seems at odds with what we now find acceptable, compassionate or humane.

Or you could be looking at your own records, for example through a SAR (Subject Access Request), perhaps when you were a child living in residential care. You may discover disturbing facts you were unaware of, or read reports on your care, including assessments that were made at the time, or comments about you, and this could trigger an emotionally upsetting response in you.

Or you could be reading about things like the kindertransport, and may or may not have connections with the Jewish community, but feel – through the records – a deep connection with people fleeing terror or persecution.

How do I cope with vicarious trauma?

First, we recognise this is a reality for some people. Whenever we find something upsetting, it is always best to talk to someone who we believe will understand. You

can talk to us about how you feel. You could talk to friends and family, who will know you far better than we do, and who may be able to support you better.

It is widely recognised that for some professions, such as policing, human rights lawyers, rescue workers, people may need professional help with their vicarious trauma, such as counselling. 

If more than one person is affected, we would consider setting up a support group, or a workshop, to explore this phenomenon and how we can help.

Tips on dealing with vicarious trauma

  • Do remember, in most cases this will pass.
  • Do acknowledge that feeling as you do is a perfectly normal human response.
  • Do talk to others about how you feel.
  • Do consider raising it with us at Gloucestershire Archives.
  • Do look online for suggestions as to how you can cope.
  • Do remember that people react differently to vicarious trauma, and that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways of dealing with it.

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