Ways for Lawyers to Minimise Vicarious Trauma

Family Law matters often centre around clients who are witnessing and experiencing high conflict or abusive behavior. Family violence is often present, and toxic, manipulative personalities are not uncommon. Lawyers that work on these kinds of matters are highly susceptible to vicarious trauma during their careers.

How Do You Know If You Are Experiencing Vicarious Trauma?

At some point in our lives, many of us will experience depression and/or anxiety. General indications of these conditions might be that we feel unusually worrisome, flat or irritable. Maybe we are more withdrawn from our social circles than usual, or perhaps we are having trouble sleeping, even self-medicating with drugs, alcohol or food.

Vicarious trauma is a unique kind of mental health experience that is separate to generalised depression/anxiety. Family lawyers should always be cognisant of this, especially given that trauma is part of the bread and butter of our industry. Over time, particularly if we are highly empathetic people, the trauma of a client can transfer to us as practitioners, and we are then at risk of enduring a suffering that is not our own, but our client’s. This is also known as second hand suffering.

Symptoms that are specifically associated with vicarious trauma include: intense dreams, nightmares, flashbacks, and an increased sensitivity to violence around us in life – for example when watching television. We might engage in avoidance type behaviour, removing ourselves from situations perceived as potentially dangerous or feeling distrustful of people whom we normally feel safe with. We might be overwhelmed with despair, shame and guilt.

What Can You Do To Protect Yourself From Vicarious Trauma Before It Strikes?

  1. Debrief – engage in discussion with colleagues and supervisors. Debriefing or ‘supervision’ ought to be mandatory in some areas of practice such as family and criminal law. Debrief about the good and the bad. The person with whom you choose to debrief must be discreet about your feelings, emotionally available, and capable of understanding the complexities associated with family law practice
  2. Choose diverse work – avoid always taking on trauma filled cases. Where possible try new areas within (or outside) your practice. This also keeps your day to day work life innovative rather than predictable and tiring. Think of your mind as a portfolio – it pays to diversify.
  3. Support – surround yourself with the right people, those that feel good for your spirit. Gently move away from the rest. Quality is better than quantity here. Friends, family, colleagues, mentors; its good to have people that care.
  4. Find good in the world outside – This can be through volunteering, participating in activities that are creative or inspiring to you, travelling, trying new things and working hard to find meaningful relationships outside of your work life.
  5. Work/life balance – make sure you schedule regular time off. If you work from home or for yourself, you must learn to be strict about implementing time periods so that ‘working time’ doesn’t delve into ‘home/family time’.
  6. Live and eat well – We are what we eat, drink and absorb! There is substantial evidence now supporting the connection between a healthy gut and a strong healthy mind. Your body is your temple so treat it that way (and reward it occasionally!). Physical exercise raises endorphins and feel good hormones, whilst reducing cortisone and adrenaline (our stress hormones). This is part of living well so that you have a solid foundation to bounce off when times get tough.
  7. Technology – Reduce exposure to social media and ‘screen time’. Get out in nature as often as you can. Mother nature knows best when it comes to calming the mind.
  8. Check in with your GP – You can discuss options for counselling and psychology. Some of the brightest minds regularly see a counsellor just to check in for a ‘mind workout’. This is something you can do even when things are tracking well, just like you continue to eat well even when you are already healthy/achieving your health goals.