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Understanding The Impact of Empathic Stress & Vicarious Trauma

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by Dr. Sherry Kelly
Clinical Psychologist & Neuropsychologist at PositiviTeens®

The emotional impact of violence, invasion, and war not only negatively affects those people
within center of the crisis, but also the observers far removed of the catastrophe. Why is it that
those of us outside of the conflict can be greatly impacted? We are connected as humans with
one another through our emotional states. In fact, just by observing another human being
threatened, or responding to a threat, our own affective response system will be aroused. As
human beings we have the capacity to emotionally and physiologically resonate with the stress
response of others going through trauma or crisis. Even when we are not directly in danger or in
a stressful situation ourselves, the stress that unfolds around us and/or that we observe can
bring us to negative affective states of “empathic stress” and “vicarious stress”. While watching
a tragic event on TV, we might think “I feel so badly for that victim of war”, or imagine, “What
might I do in that situation?”

Researchers have found that the activation of the endocrine response to stress is different in
observers compared to individuals (“targets”) within the center of a crisis. Engert V, Plessow F,
Miller R, Kirschbaum C, Singer T.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453014001243

In a 2014 study on empathic stress, researchers found that individuals within a high-stress
situation had higher adrenaline levels, while those in the study who were observers – even
remote observers – had significantly increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that
when elevated in excess and/or over time can lead to adverse health conditions (think of it as a
car horn that is stuck).Their study found that a full-blown stress response, engaging the
endocrine system, can be activated by just virtually observing someone undergoing
psychosocial stress. Cortisol increases in empathic stress were found to be modulated by
emotional closeness and observation modality. So, the greater the connection to someone in the
center of a crisis, the greater the cortisol levels increased as an observer. However, even virtual
observers without any social connection to those in a high stress situation had a significant
increase in cortisol levels.

What we see on TV or read on via the internet can elicit negative stress responses from those
far away from the crisis area. Different hormonal stress responses can be found in those in the
“survival mode” within the middle of a crisis compared to the hormonal stress responses of the
observers of the crisis. In short, there is the potential for long-term physiological and mental
health impact of being an observer of a crisis – even virtually.

Veronika Engert, Franziska Plessow, Robert Miller, Clemens Kirschbaum, Tania Singer,
Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by emotional closeness and
observation modality,
Psychoneuroendocrinology,
Volume 45,

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