Resilience is Like the Flu – It is Contagious!


If you are involved in helping others with stress and trauma, you surely have been taught about “vicarious” or “secondary” trauma. Our brains are wired for empathy, so we feel what others are feeling. People who work with traumatized people begin exhibiting signs and symptoms of traumatic injury themselves. We warn of the risks of compassion fatigue and burnout. However, we rarely acknowledge that resilience is also contagious. Vicarious resilience is as real as vicarious trauma. “Compassion satisfaction” is as real is compassion fatigue.

When we help others who are injured, we become witnesses to their pain and their healing. The more empathetic we are, the more we are motivated and able to help, but that same quality leads us to take on more of others’ emotions. If we focus only on the pain, witnessing can be toxic as that pain takes root within us. If we also see and take in their healing, witnessing can bring that healing and growth within us. Most of us who actively seek to assist others in crisis have been there in one way or another – our own suffering and healing are often a large part of our motivation to serve others. Suffering gives rise to altruism as life takes on more meaning.

Vicarious resilience has been studied mostly in clinicians who work with highly traumatized people (e.g., survivors of torture), but the principles apply to those who are helping as friends or peers. All of us can benefit from remembering – and reminding each other – that being present to others during tough times is not just a burden we carry out of duty. Even though we can and do hurt for others, we also heal and grow. As painful as some of the stories are, our lives can be enriched by witnessing the healing and growth of those we support. We can be transformed by our friends’ and coworkers’ resiliency, by finding new meaning in life, growing and developing ourselves, as well as knowing that we are of real value to them. Seeing other people bounce back and even grow after trauma can give all of us hope and guidance in coping with our own challenges.

Measuring Vicarious Resilience

The idea of vicarious resilience led to a tool for psychologists to measure it – the Vicarious Resilience Scale. It identifies seven factors:

  • Changes in life goals and perspective;
  • Hope inspired by those being helped;
  • Increased recognition of spirituality as a resource;
  • Increased capacity for resourcefulness;
  • Increased self-awareness and self-care practices;
  • Increased consciousness about power and privilege;
  • Increased capacity for remaining present while listening to painful stories.

In short, paying attention to the positives for others and ourselves when helping can make us better people and to become even more effective at helping others. Seeing yourself through the eyes of the person you are aiding is an effective way to nurture your own resilience.

Embracing the idea of vicarious resilience is yet another way to let go of the toxic myth that stress is harmful and burdensome. Stress only harms us when we fear it.