Overcoming Vicarious Trauma in the Courtroom by Building Resilience
Finding yourself in a courtroom can be an emotional experience no matter what your role. Courtrooms are often filled with conflict and stressful information exposing people to traumatic content.
The notion of vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, or compassion fatigue is not new to the legal profession. We often hear of it affecting lawyers and judges who are exposed to certain areas of the law where they are expected to hear victim’s traumatic stories or review evidence of horrific events, particularly in criminal and family law. With the practice of law being a helping profession, some may say vicarious trauma is “part of the job description.” However, occasionally, we overlook the one silent person in the courtroom—the court reporter.
Court reporters play a critical role in judicial proceedings as they impartially prepare verbatim the official record transcript. Having to ensure they have every word exact, court reporters are forced to not only listen to traumatizing cases once, but also to endure the second-hand suffering over and over.
What is Vicarious Trauma?
Vicarious trauma is a term that refers to the indirect trauma that can occur when we are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories second-hand. Initially, one may be able to omit the gruesome details from their minds, but overtime vicarious trauma symptoms can develop and even become exacerbated with the demands and stresses of everyday life. After all, our brains are wired to feel empathy and our bodies can experience the pain of others through our mirror-neuron system. If we ignore the potential signs of vicarious trauma for too long, they can manifest into anxiety, depression, or even PTSD.
It is inevitable that some legal professionals will be exposed to the pains of the courtroom environment, but this does not mean one must suffer through it. Being self-aware and building resilience is the key to overcoming vicarious trauma. Fortunately, there are some self-care techniques and strategies that are aimed at preventing and healing this trauma.
Taking a timeout from work is vital when it comes to maintaining self-care and building resilience. When you find yourself covering traumatic cases day in and day out, you must find time to step away and surround yourself with positive things outside of work or burnout will begin. During these breaks you should be completely separated from work where you do not check email or take calls. Establish a regular routine for a set amount of time that you will be away and let your colleagues and clients know this time.
Get Enough Sleep
When experiencing vicarious trauma, one of the first signs is disturbed sleep. Lack of sleep makes it extremely difficult to deal with even minor stress and is why prioritizing sleep is foundational to resilience. The Sleep Health Foundation describes the importance of sleep for trauma stating, “An extreme example of a difficult and stressful situation is being in a Prisoner of War camp. In a study that followed repatriated prisoners of war for 37 years, sleep was the strongest predictor of mental resilience.
Whatever is happening during sleep for traumatized people, it appears to assist with the recovery from these stressful experiences.” Long periods of sleep allow the brain to consolidate newly learned information and make room for new information in the future. Establishing a regular bedtime routine free of technology is a great way to improve sleep.
Maintain an Active Lifestyle
It has been long known that exercise is beneficial to your physical well-being, though now recent studies have shown exercise can be just as beneficial to your mental well-being. It is important to find an activity that you enjoy and commit to that activity daily. Movement can be as good as medicine. Research has shown that exercise can have the same neurochemical impact as anti-depressants and it only takes as little as 30 minutes a day to feel the effects. When experiencing vicarious trauma, it can feel as though you have lost all control over your thoughts and body; maintaining an active lifestyle can bring back that sense of control during moments of physical activity.
Another self-care strategy that takes only moments to do but can significantly help in building resilience is to practice mindfulness. Making it a focus to stay in the present moment in a non-judgmental way can be a powerful tool for healing and preventing vicarious trauma as mindfulness breeds resilience. When you find yourself in a stressful courtroom environment all day your brain can become unbalanced from stress and anxiety. Often you are juggling too many tasks or decisions, and you make it worse by stressing about resolutions. If you stop what you are doing and relax, it gives your brain a chance to balance itself. When we are fully present, we are focused, we are “in the zone,” we can better regulate our emotions and control those negative voices in our heads.
Stay Connected and Seek Support
Finally, stay connected to others, but not just through social media, which leads to dangerous comparisons. Instead of socializing online, engage interpersonally. Talking with others is a form of resilience. Having strong interpersonal relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and mentors will help you have the support needed when dealing with stressful situations. It provides you with the peace of mind knowing that you do not have to be all things to all people.
The stigma surrounding mental health has long plagued the legal profession, but it is critical for those who are suffering to seek help and support. Many organizations have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where individuals who are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or experiencing vicarious trauma can have access to confidential counseling.
Prioritizing mental health in the workplace creates a culture of openness knowing there is a safe place to be heard. Being able to draw strength and healing from traumatic courtroom experiences is possible and allows for resilient growth and a deeper appreciation for the value of the work and, hopefully, a lasting commitment to the profession.
 https://www.tendacademy.ca/resources-2/defining-vicarious-trauma-and-secondary-traumatic-stress/  https://www.evolveinnature.com/blog/2021/5/31/vicarious-trauma-5-strategies-to-nurture-your-nervous-system-during-difficult-times  https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/news/sleep-blog/sleep-and-mental-health.html