Indirect Trauma: Understanding Its Impact On The Human Body

Trauma that is vicarious (also called “secondary traumatization” or “indirect trauma”) is defined as trauma symptoms that occurs in an individual who observes a traumatic situation. That indirect trauma could be but is not limited to the following: rape, domestic violence, assault, repeated bullying, a natural disaster, a robbery, etc.

A lot of people have experienced indirect trauma but are unfamiliar with the signs and symptoms.

This article will review this topic with the goal of building insight. 

Symptoms of vicarious trauma vary by individual, but most experience flashbacks, anxiety, fear, heightened startle response, insomnia, chronic stress, and depression. Vicarious trauma can also happen to children. For example, children who are being raised in a home with domestic violence may experience trauma symptoms as a result of hearing and seeing the repeated abuse. Although the abuse did not technically happen to the child, the child is experiencing an emotional response as if it did every single time the child hears or witnesses the violence.

Signs and symptoms of trauma

According to the Wendt Center For Loss and Healing, there are social and behavioral symptoms of vicarious trauma including:

Physiological symptoms

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nightmares
  • Appetite changes
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response, “jumpiness”
  • Losing things
  • Clumsiness
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Negative coping – smoking, drinking, acting out

Cognitive symptoms

  • Minimization of your vicarious trauma
  • Lowered self-esteem and increased self-doubt
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Confusion/disorientation
  • Perfectionism
  • Racing thoughts
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Repetitive images of the trauma
  • Lack of meaning in life
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others

Social symptoms

  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Loneliness
  • Irritability and intolerance
  • Distrust
  • Projection of blame and rage
  • Decreased interest in intimacy
  • Distrust
  • Change in parenting style (e.g., becoming overprotective)

Behavioral symptoms

  • Change in behavior from calm, polite, or in-control to challenging, oppositional, irritable, and moody.
  • Pushing limits and refusing to listen
  • Hyperactivit, restlessness, or inattention
  • Failing grades in school due to lack of motivation
  • Refusal to care for basic needs such as hygiene
  • Refusing to eat or eating very little food
  • Easily triggered to anger (from 0 – 100 in seconds)
  • Being unreasonable or stubborn
  • Avoidance
  • Manipulation or deception


If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or someone you care about, I urge you to seek professional help and educate yourself. You can contact your nearest emergency department for a listing of referrals to a trauma therapist or visit TherapyTribe for a listing of local therapists.

When searching therapist profiles such as those through TherapyTribe or, ask directly about experience with trauma. You don’t want to pursue a therapist who has “heard about” trauma or claims to treat trauma without certification.

To learn more about Vicarious Trauma, visit the Headington Institute.

All the best to you



Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. (2013). Professionals: Vicarious Trauma. Retrieved November 2, 2013 from,