CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION
By: Leslie Fischman
The theory of emotion is very complex and when applied to the experiences of hotline counselors and therapists, it became increasingly evident that the experience of vicarious trauma is equally as complex as it is to describe the causes for it. What we do know is that losing control over our emotions has a deep impact on our ability to make sense of the reality of a situation. Our perceptions become distorted when we allow our emotions to take control. Counselors and therapists can thus become powerless when they allow the experiences of others to affect their own concept of reality. In order to enable caregivers to better serve victims, this phenomena must be studied.
What makes the concept of vicarious trauma so interesting and yet so difficult to understand is that its definition is based on emotions which are intangible and often difficult to describe. However, at the same time by expanding our definition of trauma it may in turn lessen the focus on the uniqueness of this experience when it is applied to counselors and therapist working with individuals in crisis situations. On the other hand, expanding our definition can help all individuals understand how they may be impacted in negative ways and vicariously traumatized by situations that mirror the emotional intensity of client/therapist and counselor/client relationships. Future research is needed that includes a greater diversity of viewpoints and experiences of trauma and vicarious trauma, to help counselors and therapist develop a more acute sense of what they are experiencing and know when they are experiencing symptoms vicarious trauma. Which is why my research provides a broader understanding of how and why hotline counselors and professional therapist experience vicarious trauma.
The purpose of this study is to provide evidence showing that counselors do experience stress and symptoms of vicarious trauma while helping survivors. However, even when their sense of control is lost, counselors and therapists have various ways to cope with stress. In addition to in-group support systems, they get support from those outside the organization, such as family and friends. Such support is just as effective in helping counselors cope with negative emotions, and having the support of those closest to them helps caregivers establish a more concrete belief in themselves. This in turn empowers them to recognize their capacity to regain control over their emotions and their sense of self. This high level of support encourages introspection and allows counselors and therapists to recognize and learn from their mistakes, thus improving future care.
Experience, training, and education are the keys to unlocking our capacity to manage our emotions and gain awareness of imbalances within ourselves. Without such awareness, counselors and therapists have a high potential for vicarious trauma and burn-out. This inner sense of confidence is reinforced by support received from members within the organization, as well as support systems outside of work, such as family, friends, and individual therapy and counseling services. The amount of positive reinforcement received influences perceived levels of control over emotions, as well as perceptions of level of success and competence. When caregivers feel powerless in the face of societal judgments, stereotypes, and negative feedback, their sense of vulnerability intensifies and the likelihood of developing “malapadative schemas” (Bennet-Goleman 2001:10) that undermine the potential for success increases.
Counselors and therapist become less effective when they interpret the negative emotions they feel as one reason to justify their incompetence and inability to successfully manage the emotions of their clients. When counselors begin to doubt themselves and their ability to help themselves, they begin doubt their potential to help others cope. As a result, counselor’s tend to internalize the pain of others instead of focusing on moving past that pain and helping others to do the same. Counselors enter a stuck state when they fail to see signs of positive change within themselves while helping others.
Eventually, emotions that are not dealt with cause the counselor and therapist to lose hope, even when support systems are made available to them to help them find a healthy balance. In order to help heal the trauma of the survivors’ experience, counselors must accept the emotional obstacles they encounter as simply stepping stones they must make along the path toward influencing positive change and helping others. However when the therapist’s and counselor’s do not practice self-care on an on going basis to manage their emotions, their viewpoint of others become as fixed and unchanging as they perceive their own capacity for enacting change. Counselors who do not practice self-care on an on-going basis are oblivious to the potential consequence of weakening their ability to maintain control over how they feel.
The most difficult periods a counselor encounters when dealing with unwanted and disturbing emotions marks the most significant point in a counselor’s growth. The point at which counselors face the greatest difficulty occurs when the strategies they use to manage their emotions become ineffective and they are forced to find new ways of coping in order maintain an emotional equilibrium. Those who possess the greatest potential for successfully helping themselves manage their emotions are those who can find the strength to move past these transitions. Those who are able to regain control over their emotions, show a willingness to be challenged and learn from their past failures. Counselor’s find strength from the negative experiences they have, once they are able to gain control over the way they feel and how they react. As counselors and therapists become more emotionally resilient to their exposure to trauma they in turn become more effective in helping others and less affected by the experiences they share.
Understanding the underlying causes for counselors and therapists experiencing vicarious trauma may ultimately prevent them from disassociating the systems of support that can help them deal with unwanted feelings. Hopefully future research will reveal why counselors and therapist do not go to others for support and why they allow their feelings to isolate them and cause them to disassociate from their role as therapist or counselor. The foundation from which support systems are built, determines how well they function and how useful these systems of support can be to the individuals within them. Those in charge of building peer-networks can learn from what has worked in the past and been most helpful to committed volunteers and staff memebers. Feedback from current members is needed to improve upon existing peer networks and the types of organizational support provided, so that organizations can sustain each member’s level of commitment. Not only must
counselors and therapist have access to and attend group support meetings, more attention needs to be paid to how well they participate and involve themselves within the organization. How well support groups function within organizations determines how affective these associations and the degree to which emotional connections are developed between individuals in need of each other’s support. While at the same time understanding how affective connections made between members in support networks foster the counselor and therapist’s personal growth. All of which determines how they come to understand themselves emotionally so that they can be more grounded and better prepared for their role in helping others.
Researchers studying the effects of vicarious trauma in helping professions are further along in understanding how people are affected by problems in society, and the impact that exposure to traumatic events and experiences can have on an individual’s sense of self. Being aware of triggers and how to cope with stress are key to accepting and moving past the experiences in life that we have no control over. Therefore hotline counselors and professional therapists who educate themselves on an on-going basis about how they are affected are better prepared for when they are exposed to the real-life trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault. The skills they learn as hotline counselors, professional therapists and victim advocates benefit them in all aspects of their lives.
This study raises important questions for future research. One factor inhibiting the progress researchers are able to make is globalization. The constant mixing of people means societal problems are arising at a faster rate than individuals can adjust to them or know how to respond to them. Society generally progresses in this way: problems occur first and then strategies to alleviate symptoms of those problems are created. On the flip side, the speed at which media and technology can transmit ideas benefits researchers. Access to resources is improved and the speed of data gathering is also increased.
Mass media and ready access to television, websites, and print media has also allowed broad dissemination of trauma stories. Such media can be personally damaging to those who are directly affected by similar trauma. Producers of such messages have a responsibility to take all individuals into account and show awareness of those who may be harmed by media intended to entertain. In particular, negative stereotypes and myths about sexual assault victims reinforce societal ignorance. This can lead to placing blame on others and seeing sexual assault as an individual problem. In many ways it is easier for people cope with social problems by staying narrow-minded. Ignorant people such as these are limited in terms of their understanding of social problems because they reduce problems that do not affect them to something that is wrong with the individual, rather than seeing how they in turn reinforce social stigmas that further marginalize the individual’s experience.
Current research has identified the problem of vicarious trauma, when it arises and how it affects counselors and therapists working with victims of trauma. Future research needs to focus on what can be done to help individuals through the process of healing and recovering from their experience of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Specifically strategies should be identified which help the helper move past the negative feelings and emotions that arise from their role as a victim advocate.
Therefore, the purposes of this study is to provide sufficient evidence to conclude that counselors do experience stress and symptoms of vicarious trauma while helping survivors cope. However, even when their sense of control is lost, counselors and therapist learn how to cope by utilizing organizational support systems for assistance and help gain a sense of control when they are emotionally disturbed by stories of trauma. In addition to organizational support systems, getting support from those outside the organization, such as family and friends proved to be just as effective in helping counselors cope with negative emotions. While at the same time having the support of those closest to them helped them to establish a more concrete belief within themselves, empowering them in ways to help them recognize their capacity to regain control over their emotions and their sense of self. Part of their growth, requires them to make mistakes and learn from them, by accepting the imperfections of the way they perform their role as imperfect as the world around them which too is continually evolving and changing. Therefore as they grow and change, so does the culture around them, and so will the methods they apply to coping with these changes occurring outside and within themselves.
Experience, training, and education are key to unlocking our capacity to manage our emotions and diminish potential that counselors and therapists do not experience vicarious trauma and the resulting burnout. The counselor and therapist’s sense of confidence is reinforced by the support we receive from members within the organization, as well as the support systems we have access to outside of the organization. The amount of positive reinforcements we receive influences the level of control we believe we have over our emotions, and determines our perceived level of success and competence in our role. When we feel powerless to societal judgments, stereotypes, and negative feedback, our vulnerability intensifies and the likelihood of developing “malapadative schemas” (Bennet-Goleman 2001:10) that undermine hotline volunteers’ potential for success and can negatively alter the way we see ourselves.
Current research on hotline counselors and therapists identify the patterns of feeling and emotion that are directly and indirectly related to how we are socialized in our environments. Researchers studying the effects of vicarious trauma in helping professions are further along in comparison to the rest of society’s understanding of how they are really affected by problems in society, and the impact that exposure to traumatic events and experiences can have on their sense of self. Being aware of our triggers and how we cope is key to accepting and moving past the experiences in life which we have no control over. Therefore hotline counselors and professional therapist who educate themselves, on an on-going basis about how they are affected, will in turn better prepare them for when they do expose themselves to the real-life trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault. The skills they learn throughout their experiences as hotline counselors and professional therapists and victim advocates, to cope with another’s trauma, will benefit them in all aspects of their lives as well as throughout their career.
This study raises important questions for future research. Our world is rapidly changing and social problems are becoming visible at a faster rate and individuals and organizations are finding it difficult to keep up. Society generally progresses in this way, problems occur first and then strategies for dealing with these problems are developed. However, the speed at which media and technology are able to transmit ideas can also benefit researchers in their ability to access resources. By speeding up the data gathering process so that they can begin analyzing a more diverse number of sources needed to develop potential solutions to these problems. In addition, future research needs to analyze the harm caused by rapid mass distribution. When ideas that contain very little evidence to develop concrete conclusions needed to establish truth, than our perception of what accounts for socials problems can be skewed by inadequate qualitative and quantitative research methods.
Learning to manage our emotions is one step toward preventing the occurrence of vicarious trauma, but emotion management strategies alone are not enough to help heal the wounds of trauma. Although training prepares the counselor and therapist for their role, it does not adequately prepare them for dealing with negative emotions when they arise and many counselors and therapist find that it is only through their experiences while performing their role that they come to really understand how they are impacted and what kinds of support they come to need. Managing trauma require a much deeper assessment of our individual capacity to heal, as well as the kinds of support we have access to help guide us through the process of moving past the pain and trauma. Studies that focus solely on emotion management do not encompass all the factors that contribute to an individuals experiences, which is why I have incorporated other studies on the ways emotions are transmitted between individuals and what research exists out there that discusses a
variety of methods on dealing with vicarious trauma and understanding its effects. Many studies have been done on professions in which emotional labor does not fit within their primary job description, however requires the professional to do a substantial degree of it that it affects their work productivity and their workplace environment. As research begins to study how therapists and counselors experience vicarious trauma, will provide organizations with the information they need to improve volunteer commitment. Not enough attention has been paid to the counselors and therapists experience of vicarious trauma, because it is assumed that it is their job to be empathetic, to feel the emotions of others and therefore choice they made to get involved in a helping profession and therefore not a social problem.
Organizational change is slow in part due to diminishing funding from donors and governmental sources. As a result, staff members are underpaid, and organizations lack adequate resources to address existing problems within organizations. Government funding limits the extent of how non-profits can use the money received. Therefore increased funding and organizational support can help reduce the prevalence of vicarious trauma among hotline counselors and therapist working with victims of sexual assault.
Current research has identified the problem, how it arises and how it affects counselors and therapists working with victims of trauma. However future research needs to revert its focus from figuring out how many people it affects, to developing strategies that counselors and therapist can use to manage the effects of vicarious trauma and prevent themselves from experiencing it. I hope that this research provides some insight into the experience and feeling of pain in the presence of another who is currently suffering as a natural response of those who have empathy for others (Rothschild 2006:28). After having done the readings of existing studies about vicarious trauma, I have concluded that more research needs to be done that focuses on what can be done to help individuals through the process of healing and recovering from the experience of vicarious trauma. I hope that my research has helped to establish a better understanding of what strategies are needed to help the helper move past negative emotions and find strength throughout their experiences, whether positive or negative, so that they can help others similar to themselves, overcome symptoms of vicarious trauma.
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Leslie A. Fischman