Could Vicarious Trauma Be a Piece of the Florida Lawyer Wellness Puzzle?

By Kristin Grossman, J.D., LL.M, Esq.

This article was originally posted on the University of Central Florida “Legal Practitioner Pointers.” You can find the original article here

I’ve practiced yoga and meditation for over 25 years and have been certified to teach since wrapping up that cold Massachusetts March in 1999 when I spent a month training at Kripalu Center. Given that I have practiced for nearly half my life, yoga and meditation are an integral part of who I am and the practices inform how I view the world. They are what kept me (relatively) sane through law school and law practice.

When I entered the practice of law, I thought I understood what ailed the legal community (and me). I accepted that the way we felt – the stress, depression, intrusive thoughts etc. – were due to working in an intense profession and that good self-care was the simple key to wellness.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that I added a new “lens” through which to view my life and the challenges of our legal community. This was when I began training with Warriors at Ease whose mission is “to increase awareness about the power of yoga and meditation and educate a network of professionals qualified to share evidence-based practices through programs that support the health and healing of service members, veterans, and their families.”1

While I progressed through my education exploring what we term “trauma-informed” yoga and meditation instruction, I began wondering if the behavioral and psychological challenges presenting in the legal community were symptomatic of something other than just stress or an imbalance in family/work priorities. Could part of the above-average rates of alcoholism, depression, and suicide be a result of trauma?2 Trauma could be a missing piece of the mental health puzzle and until it’s more widely recognized and treated, I believe the same challenges will continue to plague our lawyer population.

Jeena Cho, co-author of the ABA publication The Anxious Lawyer, says that many lawyers are in the “suffering business.”3 They help people during some of the toughest, heart-breaking times in their lives. Cho says that all too often lawyers believe that being adversely affected by client suffering is due to inadequate lawyering or weakness, when in fact it’s simply part of being human.4

And being exposed to the suffering embodied in the stories and events of another person’s life can lead to what is termed “vicarious trauma” (VT)5. Mental health professionals and authors of Second-Hand Shock: Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma, Ellie Izzo and Vicki Carpel Miller, advance that any time a person in a helping profession interacts with a person in distress, he or she is at risk for sustaining VT.6

Izzo and Carpel Miller define VT as a “set of cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual disturbances that result from helping trauma survivors.”7 According to Tish Vincent, a lawyer and licensed clinical social worker, these “disturbances” can take the form of the same symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that the client carries with them into the law office: intrusive thoughts of the event, distressing dreams, sleep disturbances, angry or irritable outbursts, and hyper-vigilant or self-destructive behaviors.8

It’s important to remember that trauma happens not only in dramatic circumstances like a murder, house fire, or catastrophic injury, but also in every-day tragedies such as divorce, bankruptcy, losing a job, or losing a loved one – the kind of scenarios lawyers often navigate.9 Cho reminds us that VT can be cumulative, with onset occurring after many interactions with traumatized clients or with just one exposure to an intensely traumatized client.10

Vincent advises that vicariously traumatized individuals can often engage in “unhealthy coping mechanisms” including substance abuse.11 These people attempt to escape the effects of trauma by seeking the relief that alcohol and drugs temporarily offer.12 In the words of Izzo and Carpel Miller, “we choose distracting behaviors that inevitably fail us miserably.”13

To make matters worse, helpers tend to “go it alone” and resist the possibility that VT may be the root cause of their challenges.14They also fail to look at their own personal histories with trauma which may be exacerbating their VT.15

Roderick MacLeish, who was lead counsel on more than 500 clergy sex abuse cases in Boston writes about the effects of his close work with the abuse victims in “A Proposal for Reducing the Risk of Vicarious Trauma for Advocates and Attorneys Representing Victims of Violent Crime.” After his experience of hearing abuse stories and working with victims, he was diagnosed with PTSD and could not practice law for a number of years.
MacLeish had himself experienced sexual abuse as a child and his work with the cases “rekindled unresolved issues.” He notes that although some advocates have themselves experienced trauma, VT can happen to any advocate.19

So, what action can we take? Recognizing the possibility that you might be suffering from VT is the first step. It’s then that you can proceed with getting help.

Tish Vincent tells us that VT and PTSD respond to therapeutic interventions with treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), empathic listening, and cognitive-behavioral techniques.20

As a supplement to professional treatment, Ellie Izzo and Vicki Carpel Miller crafted the Rapid Advance Process for those suffering from VT.21 The workbook for the 5-step sequence is available in their Second-Hand Shock book cited in this article.22

Jeena Cho recommends meditation as a tool for navigating this challenge in addition to needed therapeutic interventions. And the science supports this suggestion with a key study coming out of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.23 In this study, it was found that meditation supported the thickening of those regions associated with emotional regulation and self-awareness. And regions such as the amygdala, that fight or flight part of the brain that is so often overreactive in those of us who have suffered trauma, got smaller.24

As a result of training to work with traumatized populations, I now build all my classes on practices that evoke the “Relaxation Response” (RR), a mind/body state researched for over 40 years by Dr. Herbert Benson.25 The RR is your unique ability to shift from a fight/flight state to what we call the “rest and digest” state.26 This can be elicited by many different practices including specific breathing practices, a simple one being extending the exhale longer than the inhale and repeating a helpful word on the exhale.27 The RR can be elicited by a myriad of meditative movement practices, so I encourage you to explore what feels right to you.28

These are just some of the many ways to navigate VT. If you think you may be suffering from VT, please know it is no cause for shame and that VT is a normal stress response.29 I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out the help of a caring therapist who can guide you on your healing path and help you implement helpful practices into your daily self-care regimen.

Kristin Grossman is a Conflict Navigator Educator and Trainer, a Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator, a Kripalu-Certified Yoga Instructor and a Warriors at Ease Certified Teacher. 

1Warriors at Ease Home Page (last visited June 24, 2019)
2The Florida Bar Health and Wellness Center Resources, National Lawyer Mental Health Statistics (last visited June 24, 2019)
3Jeena Cho, Suffering can be the human consequence of lawyeringABA Journal June 1, 2018 (last visited June 24, 2019)
5Ellie Izzo & Vicki Carpel Miller, Second-Hand Shock: Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma 10 (2010).
8Tish Vincent, Lawyers and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Michigan Bar Journal, 58-59, June 2014 (last visited June 24, 2019)
9Cho, supra note 3.
11Vincent, supra note 8 at 58.
13Izzo, supra note 5 at 107.
15Izzo, supra note 5 at 107
16Roderick MacLeish, A Proposal for Reducing the Risk of Vicarious Trauma for Advocates & Attorneys Representing Victims of Violent Crime 2 (last visited June 24, 2019)
20Vincent, supra note 8 at 59.
21Izzo supra note 5 at 57.
22Id. at 101.
23Britta K. Hölzel et al., Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density, Nov. 10, 2010 (last visited June 24, 2019); Brigid Schulte, Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brainThe Washington Post, May 26, 2015 (last visited June 24, 2019)
25Benson Henry Institute, About Dr. Herbert Benson (last visited June 24, 2019)
26Understanding the stress response, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, March 2011, Updated May 1, 2018
27Video of Dr. Herbert Benson (last visited June 24, 2019).
28Penelope Klein et al., Meditative Movement, Energetic, and Physical Analyses of Three Qigong Exercises: Unification of Eastern and Western Mechanistic Exercise Theory, Sep. 23, 2017 (last visited June 25, 2019); Albert Yeung et al., Effectiveness of the Relaxation Response-Based Group Intervention for Treating Depressed Chinese American Immigrants: A Pilot Study, Sep. 5, 2014 (last visited June 25, 2019); Catherine Woodyard, Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life, July-Dec., 2011 (last visited June 25, 2019).
28 Izzo supra note 5 at 97.