‘I have been over-involved in my flatmate’s life and now I’m at breaking point’

Tell Me About It: ‘You need to be healthy and functioning well as a human being if you are to be a source of support for others’


I have been looking up Vicarious trauma as I think I am suffering from it, though this feels selfish as I have not been directly affected.

I share a flat with someone who has been hugely affected by repeated catastrophes such as war in their home region, earthquakes, casual horrible comments in Ireland and death in their family. I feel that I have been over-involved with my flatmate and now I too feel at breaking point.

I totally share her feeling that the world is unsafe, and most people can’t be trusted and that the future is desolate. I have nightmares, fuelled by the stories that I have heard and I am exhausted all the time. I know my work is affected as I am struggling to concentrate and also that I am snappy and impatient with my colleagues. My own relationship is suffering too as I cannot bear that my boyfriend wants to do something frivolous, such as spend money on trips abroad for us or they question how much time I spend on online campaigns, etc.

He says I’ve become cynical and depressed. I feel like I am going a bit mad as I know nothing has happened me personally, but I can’t pull myself away from it. I know that as a teenager, I got too close to a friend group, and it ended up exploding as it was too intense and obsessive, and I feel the dread of having to go through all that again now.

I want to be helpful and useful, but I feel that I am becoming a burden, even on the friend that I am supposed to be supporting.


I think your reference to Vicarious trauma is a good description of what is happening to you. Its three defining characteristics are:

1. the sufferer is overly involved with, or seeking avoidance of, the victim/survivor,

2. a hypervigilance and fear for one’s own safety (the world no longer feels safe) and,

3. having intrusive thoughts and images or nightmares from victims’ stories.

We know the consequence of the condition is that people suffer from empathic strain, or compassion fatigue, as well as symptoms similar to those directly suffering from trauma, and from your letter you appear to be exhibiting many of these symptoms. Your struggle at work and increasing intolerance of other’s frivolity is a marker of increased strain and together with a tendency to isolation from social life, this indicates the need for an intervention of some sort.

That you have such empathy, and that you feel your friend’s distress and pain, is not something you want to get rid of as this is what makes you a good friend and all-round good human being. However, you also need resilience and some protection from unnecessary suffering. It is of no benefit if we take on someone else’s pain to the point it incapacitates us or if we join in the despair of others when what they need is our help to emerge from a crisis and engage with life.

The point here is that you need to be a well and functioning human being if you are to be a source of support for others. This starts with self-care and self-awareness. Self-awareness requires you to know the state you are in, and self-care means that you action what is needed following this analysis. As a starting point, it would be good to use your employee assistance programme (EAP) if your workplace has one – this is a programme where many employers engage a counselling service to provide confidential sessions to employees, usually numbering between four to six free sessions. You can take time to investigate the triggering effect of the current trauma on the past experience of your close friendship group disbanding, the fear of your relationship breaking down and on your struggle with work. (If your organisation does not have an EAP programme, look up mentalhealthireland.ie for other resources.)

Vicarious trauma often displays itself in seemingly unrelated ways but you are responding in a known and understood manner. What you want is to be robust enough to assist your flatmate, to be a stalwart for her in the ongoing distress that she is subjected to and to have energy and resources for your own life. We know that the routine aspects of life have a huge impact on our wellbeing: good sleep, nutrition and exercise all contribute to a functioning body.

Having a social life, friends and relationships all help meet our need for emotional sustenance, and training your mind to be quiet (and not constantly agitated) is needed for good judgment and decision-making.

Essentially, whatever you think your flatmate needs for survival and thriving, you also need to implement for yourself. Your boyfriend may be right in suggesting time away so listen to him, your colleagues will be supportive if you tell them what you are going through and your family will likely have prior knowledge (from when you were at school) of how to help you overcome distress. Developing resilience will not only allow you to stand with your friend in their time of adversity but it will also develop adaptive strategies for your future experiences of trauma. It will give you “bounce back” ability and this is something worth having.

Taking actions that contribute to supporting those who are struggling can help both those in need and the person trying to help. When you have your energy and capacity back, you will be much better placed to judge what is useful for you to do and in what way you can contribute best.