Vicarious Trauma in Young Adults

vicarious trauma

Young adults do not always have to be at the forefront of traumatic events to be affected by them. They may be affected by vicarious trauma, which can have a lasting impact on them and be just as distressing.

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Also known as secondary or insidious trauma, vicarious trauma occurs when people who did not experience or witness a traumatic event are affected by it. It is most commonly associated with professions such as law enforcement, social work, and the emergency services, but it can also affect teenagers and young adults.

With the increased news coverage of traumatic events, such as violence and natural disasters, more young people are at risk of developing vicarious trauma. Research has shown that people who follow news stories of traumatic events are more likely to develop stress-related symptoms.[1]

Vicarious trauma can also occur in teens when they hear of a traumatic incident within their local community or if something happens to one of their friends. For example, if a violent incident occurs at their school, even if they did not witness it directly, some young adults may develop vicarious trauma related to the incident.

Children have been found to experience vicarious traumatisation from trauma their parents and caregivers may have been through. Factors that can influence this can include:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Caregiver hostility or warmth
  • Race and ethnicity

Signs of Vicarious Trauma in Young Adults

Vicarious trauma can cause both physical and emotional symptoms, including:

  • A feeling of helplessness and guilt
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Muscle pain with no defined reason
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Intense fear of traumatic events happening to them in the future
  • Increased anxiety
  • Hypervigilance

Teenagers may struggle to feel safe and be worried that something will happen to them, their friends, or their family, and although they may be intensely distressed by the news of traumatic events, they may feel unable to stop watching it.

Young adults may also develop a cynical worldview, seeing the world as dangerous and hostile due to constant negative news coverage. Even if they are safe and cared for, they may still regard many situations as potential threats.

Vicarious Trauma and Mental Health

Experiencing vicarious trauma can significantly impact the mental health of teenagers and young adults. They may be significantly more anxious or feel more depressed and, in some cases, can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Persistent feelings of anxiety and depression can disrupt young adults’ lives, making it challenging to focus on school or other activities. Their grades may suffer, and they may turn to harmful substances such as alcohol or risky behaviour to manage and numb their symptoms.

Treating Vicarious Trauma

There are many approaches to vicarious trauma that can help teenagers and young adults manage their symptoms and, in some cases, can even help to prevent vicarious trauma:

  • Limit social media consumption – many young adults use social media every day and often have accounts on multiple platforms. This can contribute to the development of vicarious trauma, as they are exposed to negative events worldwide. Limiting time spent on social media can help reduce vicarious trauma symptoms and can help teenagers focus on more positive things offline.
  • Volunteering – helping others in their community can help teenagers focus on making a positive change rather than ruminating on the negative. Volunteering also comes with many additional benefits for young adults, including improved confidence and the development of new skills.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques – mindfulness and meditation can help teenagers cope with difficult emotions and situations caused by vicarious trauma. Meditating for a few minutes daily, creating gratitude lists in the morning, and writing in a journal at night are all mindful practices that can help teenagers focus on the present and be more positive.

Young adults experiencing vicarious trauma may worry that something is wrong with them, as even though they did not directly experience or witness a traumatic event, they can be highly affected by it. However, nobody is immune from trauma, and constant exposure to traumatic events can be incredibly difficult to deal with.

Vicarious trauma is a complex condition, and self-care may not be enough. Trauma treatment can help young adults to process traumatic events through techniques such as somatic experiencing and Internal Family Systems therapy.

Do not hesitate to seek professional help if vicarious trauma is affecting a young adult in your life. Vicarious trauma is treatable, and there are ways that young adults can learn to cope with its effects and limit their exposure to it.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with vicarious trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Holman, E. Alison et al. “Media’S Role In Broadcasting Acute Stress Following The Boston Marathon Bombings”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 111, no. 1, 2013, pp. 93-98. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, Accessed 29 July 2022.