Vicarious Trauma and Online Professionals

Vicarious trauma is a by-product of engaging in work that includes ongoing exposure to distressing images, sights, and sounds and as well as exposure to personal stories of trauma. Web-based professionals whose job it is to “protect” online communities from inappropriate material are regularly subjected to obscene, toxic, and exceptionally disturbing pictures, videos, and online postings, distressing virtual conversations, and cyberspace crimes. Research suggests that repeated “vicarious” exposure to such incidences places these professionals at high-risk for developing vicarious trauma or some form of secondary traumatic stress. This type of stress can have deleterious effects upon the well-being of the online professional’s personal and emotional lives as well as their ability to deliver quality services to their clients over time. The following is a list of stressors often encountered by the safety-focused cyberspace professionals:

Stressors Unique to the Role of “Cyberspace Guardian”

  • Repeated exposure to distressing online content
  • Pressure to address a high number of cases due to the guardian’s unique skillset and the number of cases identified for investigation
  • Lack of understanding and support of the guardian’s work by the larger organization, and others, due to the novelty of the role
  • Inability to control the actions of online rule-violators and perpetrators
  • Constantly changing cyberspace landscape
  • Unusual time demands of online work

How Mindfulness Can Help…
Mindfulness is a meditative practice that involves training one’s ability to pay attention to what is happening in the moment without reacting to elaborate mental stories about the experience and without reacting to distressing thoughts or emotions that may be present; instead, the experience is accepted without judgment or avoidance (Baer, Smith, Hopkins et al., 2006; Carmody, 2009; Dimidjian & Linehan, 2003). Similarly, mindfulness is associated with improvements in concentration and awareness of thoughts and feelings as transient mental and physical events, not as factual representations of reality that demand a response (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). In this way, cyberspace guardians trained in mindfulness can learn to witness distressing online events from a more distanced and less personal perspective, which may allow for more reflective, intentional action and less impulsive, “automatic” emotional reactivity.

Written by Tony Madril, LCSW, BCD

I offer specialized trainings for online professionals who are struggling with vicarious trauma and other types of work-related stress. If you would like more information about how vicarious trauma may affect the online professional, please feel free to contact me @ or by calling (323) 315-2598. 


1. Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13(1), 27-45.

2. Carmody, J. (2009). Evolving conceptions of mindfulness in clinical settings. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), 270.

3. Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 15(5), 593-600.

4. Dimidjian, S., & Linehan, M. M. (2003). Defining an agenda for future research on the clinical application of mindfulness practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 166-171.

5. Garland, E., Gaylord, S., & Park, J. (2009). The role of mindfulness in positive reappraisal. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 5(1), 37-44.



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