Vicarious Trauma – PTSD Awareness Day

Jun 25, 2021 | Blog Articles

With a ‘lived’ experience of trauma after working 17 years in forensics for NSW Police, Esther McKay helped establish Quest’s acclaimed Moving Beyond Trauma program in 2016. Esther has now re-joined Quest to further develop our trauma services which include providing longer-term residential programs for participants who have attended Moving Beyond Trauma.

Esther is dedicated to advocating for improving conditions for first-line responders and has raised the profile of emergency workers who are injured in the line of duty.

This is her story of vicarious trauma on PTSD Awareness Day.

When I was a young constable working in police forensics as a stolen vehicle specialist, I regularly spoke to fellow crime scene examiners across NSW to assist them with vehicle inquiries.  What I didn’t know at the time was the effect these conversations were having on my mental health.

My natural caring nature meant I’d ask my colleagues how they were feeling and how their workload was impacting them.  Interestingly, my colleagues would immediately open up and begin to describe the most horrendous crime scenes they had examined in the previous six months. As a colleague, I was well placed to hear these stories as I understood not only the nature of forensic work, but also the human centered impact.

“At some stage during one of these conversations I realised I could hear a thumping sound in my left ear which developed from the sensation of pushing the phone receiver into the side of my head.  This was a direct result of the tension in my hand as I gripped the receiver and not only tensed my arm but also clenched my teeth as I was being unwittingly vicariously traumatised.” 

Esther graduation photo

This led me to draw a direct correlation with trauma in the mind and evidence that trauma is also experienced in the body!  This is a clear example of vicarious trauma and the way we exhibit the effects of hearing descriptions of traumatic events, both as psychological distress but also, how it ‘sits’ in our bodies, and the clear signals our body sends when exposed to the trauma of others.

Sometimes we can find ourselves working beyond our personal and emotional limits. This may be due to unrealistic workloads, lack of professional support, a toxic culture that doesn’t tolerate any perceived ‘weakness’ or an unforeseen personal situation such as an illness or accident in the family. All these situations may sap our energy and impact on our capacity to respond skilfully to life’s challenges. Some workplaces provide little support, understanding or sympathy for staff impacted by trauma. Indeed, even asking for help is seen as a weakness or vulnerability which may not match the ‘macho’ image of the job.

It is imperative that we, a) learn to understand the impact of trauma in the body, and b) we take note when we receive clear signals from our body which tell us to manage these symptoms and care for ourselves.

Esther McKay


People in professions such as the military, firefighters, paramedics, emergency workers, police officers and psychologists are particularly vulnerable to this debilitating condition. It’s estimated that around 10 percent of Australians experience PTSD at some stage in their lives. People with PTSD can experience other mental health issues at the same time such as anxiety, depression, alcohol and/or drug use.

PTSD – and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) – elicit a complex series of emotions, which are often persistent, uncomfortable and founded on anxiety. It typically develops after we experience one or many traumatic events that threaten our life or safety, or the lives or safety of the people around us. PTSD can develop after one significant exposure to trauma whereas CPTSD involves repeated trauma over time.


Symptoms may include:

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event/s
  • Intrusive memories or nightmares about the traumatic event/s
  • Numbing oneself with alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex or busyness
  • Flight or fight behaviours; extreme reactions, angry outbursts, reckless behaviour
  • Avoiding people, places or conversations that might trigger memories
  • Feeling emotionally numb; becoming detached from friends and family
  • Feeling ‘dissociated’; watching life from a distance
  • Feeling jumpy and anxious for no reason
  • Heightened vigilance; looking for, or anticipating danger
  • Persistently replaying or blaming yourself or others for the traumatic event
  • Extreme distress in response to triggers such as images, smells, stories, sounds
  • Impatience, intolerance, sleeplessness, irritability

People with CPTSD have some of the same symptoms as PTSD but with some additional ones which may include:

  • Feeling worthless, hopeless and powerless to change
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Feeling angry and distrustful about people and/or the world
  • A pervasive numbing void or emptiness inside
  • Feeling permanently ‘damaged’, ‘different from others’ and ‘beyond repair’


Many people think they just ‘need to toughen up’. However, PTSD is not about how tough you are. PTSD is an injury to the most primitive part of the brain: the fear, memory and sensory areas. At Quest, we prefer to call it a post-traumatic stress injury as it is more indicative of what the person has actually experienced. It has nothing to do with strength of character, skills or knowledge. It is literally a physical trauma to the brain, just as much as a physical injury to the body after a traumatic impact. If you broke your arm, you wouldn’t expect to carry a bucket of water. Likewise, we can’t expect to respond to challenging circumstances in healthy ways until we’ve healed that injury.


“You are not your brain; you have a brain.”

If your brain and nervous system have been traumatised, then you can learn about healing both. Research into post-traumatic stress injuries suggest the brain can be healed through the neurotransmitters of serotonin, dopamine, anandamide, progesterone, testosterone, oxytocin (the ‘cuddle’ hormone) and the endorphins, amongst others. However, we only produce those neurotransmitters when we feel valued, respected, cared for, educated and compassionately supported.

At Quest for Life, participants are taught to manage their symptoms more effectively, communicate and resolve conflict more skilfully, regulate their emotions and express them in healthier ways, switch ‘off’ their brain so that deep and restful sleep can assist in healing, as well as learning about how trauma impacts the brain and how simple lifestyle practices can make healing possible.

With regular practice of easy to implement life skills learnt on the Moving Beyond Trauma program, the intensity of symptoms can be managed and significantly reduced, restoring quality of life.

 Post-traumatic growth is possible. When we actively engage with managing our brain and body more effectively through education and support, healing is accelerated.

Being with others who experience PTSD also helps. There’s a power in being with people who share the experience of trauma – we need to be with people who ‘get’ us, including a team of highly skilled professionals who are dedicated to your education and recovery.


It takes strength and resilience to work through PTSD and CPTSD, and Quest for Life can help through our 5-day residential Moving Beyond Trauma program which offers an effective and holistic approach to managing and healing post-trauma suffering in a confidential and safe environment.

Quest for Life knows how to help: participants experience a 32% increase in quantified mental wellbeing (Kessler 10 and PTSD 6) 4 weeks after attending the Moving Beyond Trauma program. This figure continues to rise as participants implement their learnings. Many past participants have returned to work and/or fulfilling lives.

Find out more about Quest for Life’s Moving Beyond Trauma program or call 1300 941 488 and speak to our Programs Team

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