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                            Columbia College Chicago
Digital Commons @ Columbia College Chicago
The Lived Experience of Vicarious Trauma for Providers: A Narrative Phenomenoleogical Study
	Ambryn D. Melius
		Recommended Citation
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Page 1

Columbia College Chicago
Digital Commons @ Columbia College Chicago

Creative Arts Therapies Theses Thesis & Capstone Collection


The Lived Experience of Vicarious Trauma for
Providers: A Narrative Phenomenoleogical Study
Ambryn D. Melius

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Recommended Citation
Melius, Ambryn D., "The Lived Experience of Vicarious Trauma for Providers: A Narrative Phenomenoleogical Study" (2013).
Creative Arts Therapies Theses. Paper 46.

Page 2

The Lived Experience of Vicarious Trauma for Providers:

A Narrative Phenomenological Study

Ambryn D. Melius

Thesis submitted to the faculty of Columbia College Chicago

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for

Master of Arts


Dance/Movement Therapy & Counseling

Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling Department

December 2013


Susan Imus, MA, BC-DMT, LCPC, GL-CMA
Chair, Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling

Laura Downey, MA, BC-DMT, LPC, GL-CMA

Research Coordinator

Kyla Gilmore, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT
Thesis Advisor



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writing honed in on the co-researcher’s recollection of the moment she received

confirmed news that a past client had been raped in the streets:

“…emotion and powerlessness (and dare I say, slices of anger) emerge in her
eyes, in their reddening, dropping, and tearing….(weight, pause) ‘the worst

moment of my career’ she says. I feel this ‘worst’ in my jaw, at my upper chest
and make sound to connect, to acknowledge [her sharing], my weight drops

further into my chair…
[as] her hand floats to her upper chest…”

Another co-researcher experienced consistent difficulties breathing throughout

our interview, while at the same time, she was sharing this same quality of never feeling

like she could get a full breathe during her period of vicarious trauma. My embodied

writing session, after this co-researcher’s interview, captured her recollection of the

moment she realized she, and as a result humans, were “fucked” and powerless in any

attempts to make change in the world:

“…‘fucked…we’re fucked,’ she said…yet she wants a full breathe, she seeks a
deep full breathe, yearning to be listened to, yearning to find power in quieting,

slowing, stopping…”

For the majority of co-researchers, significant experiences powerlessness and

helplessness in the form of feelings, sensations, and thoughts were major components of

their experiences with vicarious trauma.

Hypervigilance/Fear of the Future

Experiences, feelings and sensations of hypervigilance emerged from the

majority of co-researcher narratives in connection to their vicarious trauma. These

experiences including overarching feelings of being “on-guard,” overly anxious, and

experiencing irrational fear, along with often unconscious behaviors of obsessive


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checking and vigilant posturing. Sensations of anxiety were a prominent component of

hypervigilance for one co-researcher who noticed his anxiety mounting at the start of his

drive to the supportive housing complex where he worked with adults living with trauma,

addiction, and chronic mental health issues. He shared, “on the drive….I would start to

get a little anxious….or I would start to….become more vigilant, drive around the

compound and see if there was anything off…and then go to my office.”

Another co-researcher, a critical care emergency room nurse, noted the nature of

his job being that of “car[ing] for people that are in these extremely vulnerable states…”

and how this naturally makes him, “incredibly vigilant about all of the possible bad

things that could happen [to people]….all the complications.” However, this co-

researcher noticed his professionally trained vigilance become hypervigilance when he

started having dreams and “obsessive thoughts…that I knew were irrational.” His dreams

and thoughts involved “worst case scenarios…me doing things that would cause harm,

not intentionally you know but being very terrified…” After five years of nursing

experience, even though the co-researcher knew his thoughts were irrational, they still

“…became almost paralyzing,” and helped him to realize, “woah…I need to step back

from this [work] for a little bit.”

For most of these co-researchers, feelings and sensations of hypervigilance seeped

into their personal lives as well, interrupting their ability to be present outside of work, as

they experienced a constant hyper-awareness of the potential for danger at all times. This

emerged for one co-researcher quite literally, as her rape-crisis advocate job required her

to be on-call, carrying a pager at all times. As she spoke about wearing the pager, the co-

researcher gestured to the side of her lower back, while recalling, “there was a sensation


Page 155

Appendix G

Additional Thematic Categories

A) Coping with Vicarious Trauma: What helps?

1) Increased agency and choice
2) Supportive, like-minded colleagues
3) Normalizing experiences of vicarious trauma
4) Meaning-making/Existential questions: connecting with human experience
5) Interview and narrative as impetus for increased self-care
6) Engaging the body; gym, run, walk, move

-Acceptance (of the situation, of oneself)
-Focus on own learning
-Finding joy/purpose in work
-Finding energy state/somatic release within vicarious trauma


1) Deceleration
2) Decreasing Pressure
3) IncreasingDecreasing Pressure
4) Free Flow

B) Vicarious Trauma and Personal Relationships, Family, Social Life

1) Increased compassion, perspective, patience for others/friends
2) Difficulties interacting/socializing with others:
-“most people don’t hear about it [trauma]…” “less capacity for small talk”
“harder to live in pretense” “shit isn’t as important anymore…” “less patience for
3) Family challenges
4) Isolation from family, partner, friends, others

C) The Role of Systemic Issues, Organizational Culture/Administration

1) Inadequacies of the System
“not enough messages” “pressure to do more” “system setting you up to fail”
“invisible at work” “system inadequacies” “inadequate funding”
“client not traumatized enough for service…”


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2) Lack of Organizational/Administrative Support
“minimized” “no room for growth, no support” “you’re too sensitive”
“hopeless” “suck it up…vicarious trauma is a weakness” “lack of support”

“You know, are you crossing all your t’s and dotting all your i’s? If you didn’t,
they would throw you under the bus, so you’re dealing with this absolute
messiness of people’s lives, trying to help, and then if you didn’t document
something right, regardless of whether you’re doing the job right, you would get
thrown under the bus. There was always this looming threat of professional
trauma, if you will, which means not being able to pay for your mortgage or
something like that…”

3) Ethical Tensions: containment model
“should I be restraining kids?”
“trying to dysregulate kids…into explosive release, potentially re-
traumatizing…kids escalate, become unsafe, we contain…terrible”

3) Stigma
“suck it up…vicarious trauma is a weakness”
“ok to burnout, but too vulnerable to be vicariously traumatized”

4) Cultural Issues
“un-winnable” “clients will beat your ass…”

5) Primary Trauma at work
“I felt unsafe”

D) Vicarious Trauma as a Label/Term

Label is positive: (3/11)
“I like the term vicarious trauma…helps me let go responsibility…the trauma
isn’t mine” “it validates vicarious trauma”

Label is problematic: (2/11)
“dangerous…wrong words…trauma not expected”
“label is too solid, concrete…is harmful” “we need to expand the labels”

Labels are too open-ended: (2/11)
“definitions remain vast and varies….highlights the nebulous nature of vicarious
“vicarious trauma is not well documented…we’re never gonna get anywhere
unless we address that”

No mention/stated opinion: (4/11)


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