Lawyers and Vicarious Trauma: The Power of Physical Activity for Psychological Resilience

Lawyers and Vicarious Trauma: The Power of Physical Activity for Psychological Resilience

Lawyers and Vicarious Trauma: The Power of Physical Activity for Psychological Resilience

In the demanding world of law, where every decision carries significant consequences, the pressures you face can be overwhelming. Throughout your day, you may find yourself tied to your desk, toggling between screens, meticulously poring over case files, drafting documents, and navigating a flurry of meetings and client interactions. The pace and intensity can feel relentless, often leaving little time for breaks, let alone movement.

While you may be acutely aware of the toll this hectic lifestyle and demanding workload can take on your overall well-being, there’s another critical factor that comes with the territory of practicing law – the occupational exposure to trauma and the risk of vicarious trauma in legal professions.

Exposure to Trauma in the Workplace is an Occupational Risk

In the legal field, trauma exposure is an inherent occupational hazard. While professions involving physical labour often come with visible dangers, hazards in legal professions may be less visible. Nonetheless, the impact of trauma in legal work is equally significant. Lawyers, especially those handling cases in family, criminal, immigration, personal injury or litigation law, frequently encounter emotionally charged situations and distressed clients.

Professionals regularly exposed to trauma in their work face elevated risks of experiencing physical and psychological challenges, including chronic stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. Continuous exposure to graphic evidence and emotional narratives concerning client safety and welfare can deeply impact those who are in the supporting role. Recognising and addressing this occupational hazard is crucial for legal professionals to safeguard their psychological resilience and overall well-being.


What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a type of stress response that occurs when you’re exposed to someone else’s trauma indirectly, rather than experiencing it directly, first-hand. It often arises from empathetic engagement with the traumatic experiences of others, and can lead to emotional, psychological, and physical distress experienced by the person who provides care or support to those affected by trauma. 

As a lawyer, you may come across clients and emotionally charged material related to loss, bereavement, abuse, crisis, and separation. This exposure can take various forms: witnessing events in real-time, reading witness statements or client accounts, or even being in the presence of someone experiencing a crisis. 

Secondary exposure to other people’s trauma can evoke strong emotional responses similar to those experienced by the individuals directly involved. Even when working in a professional capacity, bearing witness and supporting someone through a challenging time can have a profound personal impact.

The Link Between Lawyers and Vicarious Trauma

You don’t have to be on the frontline fighting fires in a burning building to encounter trauma.

Legal professionals experience trauma vicariously when they’re exposed to the distress of others through their work. This might involve reading sensitive or disturbing case notes, witnessing the stress of colleagues impacted by their cases, or engaging directly with clients and emotionally charged situations concerning the safety and well-being of others. This second-hand exposure can be mentally and physically draining, especially considering the demanding nature of legal work. 

Even if your role primarily revolves around legal documents, policies, or office-based tasks in front of a screen, it doesn’t diminish the potential for experiencing vicarious trauma as a lawyer. It’s imperative for legal professionals to recognise and proactively manage this challenge to protect their well-being and resilience.

Understanding Trauma’s Impact on the Brain & Body and Beyond

In professions where exposure to trauma is part of the job, its effects on both the brain and body are real and concerning. Dealing with trauma regularly puts significant stress on both your brain and body. 

Over time, this stress can lead to significant changes in how your brain works, especially in areas that are responsible for cognitive processing and emotional regulation. For example, this ongoing stress can affect your memory, focus, decision-making, and emotional responses. 

Similarly, stress can adversely affect the body. When we encounter stress, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline, triggering a “fight or flight” response. Yet, if this stress persists over time and our internal alarm bells ring constantly, it disrupts our body’s balance and can lead to various issues like headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal problems.

Dealing with emotionally charged situations day in and day out can wear down your resilience over time. Ultimately it can impact your effectiveness and productivity at work, and take a toll on your physical health, mental health, and interpersonal relationships.


The Benefits of Physical Activity and Movement in Trauma-Exposed Legal Professionals

Engaging in physical activity and movement throughout your day offers a number of health benefits. For those working in law who are regularly exposed to trauma, it can also serve as a vital tool for combating stress, providing moments of necessary respite and stability, and facilitating the processing of trauma that may otherwise linger or exacerbate, if left unaddressed. 

Busy professionals can sometimes overlook the importance of standing up, moving around, and taking breaks from the subjects occupying their minds and bodies. However, this simple act can provide much-needed relief from your job’s demands. It can also serve as a protective buffer against stress overload, helping to build resilience and prevent burnout. 

Prioritising self-care and taking preventive measures to address early warning signs of vicarious trauma can significantly contribute to overall well-being and effectiveness for lawyers and legal professionals.

How Physical Activity and Movement Can Support Your Mental Health

Combatting Stress

Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine – neurotransmitters that promote feelings of well-being and reduce stress. Regular exercise also conditions the body’s stress response system, making it more resilient to stressors over time. 

Providing Rest and Respite

Physical activity offers vital moments of rest and recovery, allowing you to recharge both physically and mentally. By stepping away from stressors, you create a buffer zone, fostering renewal and rejuvenation. These breaks provide essential recovery time from emotionally charged material, helping you sustain your work effectively.

Strengthening Resilience

Committing to regular physical activity and integrating movement in your day strengthens resilience, which can enable you to better withstand the challenges of your profession and navigate difficult situations with greater ease.

Promoting Emotional Processing

Movement offers a valuable avenue for releasing emotions, enabling you to effectively process and manage stress in a healthy way. When we engage in physical activity, we create space to release stress and emotions that might otherwise linger or fester, adversely impacting our well-being.

Small Steps to Moving More at Work

Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine doesn’t have to be daunting. Start by making simple changes like opting for the stairs instead of the lift or taking short walks during breaks. Find activities that bring you joy and seamlessly fit into your schedule, whether it’s stretching while waiting for a meeting or walking a bit farther on your commute. Remember, every little movement contributes to your overall well-being.

It’s not just about structured exercise; it’s about embracing an active lifestyle in all aspects of your day. From stretching at your desk to choosing to walk instead of drive, each moment of movement adds up. Prioritising movement enhances not only your physical health but also your psychological well-being, crucial for mitigating the risks of vicarious trauma prevalent in the legal profession.

Self-Care and Support for Vicarious Trauma

In the legal profession, exposure to trauma is an inherent occupational risk capable of affecting anyone, regardless of their professional experience or personal resilience. Vicarious trauma is a real concern for lawyers and anyone working in the legal profession in supporting roles.

To navigate legal work safely and maintain psychological resilience, prioritising your mental health is essential. Incorporating self-care practices, like physical activity, isn’t just a luxury – it’s necessary for safeguarding your psychological safety and resilience to sustain a career in law. Ongoing self-care and support are vital for legal professionals. Whether it involves taking time for yourself, engaging in open conversations with family, friends and colleagues, seeking professional counselling and psychotherapy, or embracing self-care practices such as physical activity. 

Remember to care for yourself as you do for others. Your well-being matters, too.

About the author
Jamie Kelly is the Founder, CEO and Clinical Director of YTherapy - a mental health service specialising in private psychotherapy and workplace wellness support for helping professionals. As experts in burnout and vicarious trauma, Jamie and her team provide trauma-informed and resilience-based mental health and wellness services for first responders, digital safety, forensic and specialist...