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Torture. 2007;17(3):203-15.

How therapists cope with clients' traumatic experiences.

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Centrum '45 and Leiden University Medical Center, Medical Psychology, Leiden, The Netherlands.


An initial finding of high emotional stress in trauma therapists working in a specialized trauma institute led to three empirical studies on trauma-related therapist reactions. The purpose of these studies was to investigate the relation between high emotional burden and burnout, and the trauma-specific processes described by the concepts "secondary traumatic stress", "vicarious traumatization" and "traumatic countertransference". The initial qualitative/quantitative study examined how a group of specialized trauma therapists (N=63) coped with clients' traumatic experiences. The results on trauma-related reactions were inconclusive. This motivated a qualitative study of expert psychotherapists (N=11). Interviews with expert trauma therapists and other expert therapists were focused on reactions to the confrontation with traumatic experiences and differences between both groups of experts. Results indicated a specific reaction pattern to traumatic situations, but revealed no other differences between trauma specialists and other experts. To further examine trauma-specificity of this reaction pattern, a third study was conducted with psychology students (N=100) using an experimental design. The results suggest the existence of a trauma-specific reaction pattern, characterized by shock, anxiety and the experience of being carried away by strong emotions. The relation of trauma reactions with traumatic situations is endorsed by results on differential reactions to traumatic and interactionally difficult situations, although results suggest that other kinds of situations with high emotional impact may also evoke trauma-reactions. In the discussion the results are considered in relation to the limitations of the studies are followed recommendations for further research. Our results thus far support the high emotional impact of confrontation with traumatic material, but nuances psychopathological or other long-term negative changes that are suggested by the terms secondary or vicarious traumatization.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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