What Is Secondary Trauma? I Psych Central – PsychCentral.com

Professionals within direct service fields are often subject to secondary trauma, but there are ways to work through it.
Some jobs require a lot of empathy. Many people in helping professions — such as nurses, therapists, social workers, and first responders — show up to work with big hearts, ready to help others.
Supporting people through their traumatic situations can be a trauma of its own, called secondary trauma. It’s especially common among helping professionals.
The chronic stress of taking in others’ trauma can lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as emotional exhaustion or hypervigilance. Taking time to relax and decompress away from work can help ease your symptoms.
Secondary trauma — aka compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or secondary traumatic stress — occurs when someone is significantly impacted by someone else’s trauma.
According to Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT and founder of Take Root Therapy, secondary trauma is a stress response in reaction to hearing about or being witness to the firsthand traumatic experience of another. Firsthand trauma can be in the form of emotional distress or physical pain.
This means the indirect exposure to trauma — often through discussion of traumatic events or direct caregiving — causes trauma to the listener.
Secondary trauma typically develops when hearing about someone else’s trauma, and the intense, persistent stress that can come with that is a consistent part of someone’s life.
Burnout is sometimes conflated with secondary trauma. While it’s similar in symptoms and presentation, secondary trauma can be a direct result of engaging with or witnessing trauma. But burnout can occur for a variety of reasons such as an unrelenting workload.
Definitions of secondary trauma and related conditions vary in scientific studies. Some describe it as the co-occurrence of emotional exhaustion from secondary traumatic stress and physical exhaustion of burnout.
All these conditions can impact the caregiver’s mental health and their ability to continue showing the same level of empathy to patients.
According to a 2016 review, signs of secondary trauma are similar to symptoms of PTSD.
Common symptoms include:
People with secondary trauma who are in caregiving professions likely won’t be able to care for their patients with the same degree of empathy, effectiveness, or sound decision making.
It’s also common for the relationship between the provider and patient to start to disintegrate, according to a 2015 review on professionals in intensive care units (ICUs).
Secondary trauma is often described as a symptom of people who work in direct service, especially those who deal directly with people experiencing or working through trauma.
Secondary trauma is most prevalent in professions such as:
According to research from 2020, an estimated 15%-35% of social workers experience symptoms of secondary traumatic stress.
A 2013 review found that approximately 19% of mental health professionals who work with people in the military experience symptoms of secondary traumatic stress such as intrusion, avoidance, and arousal.
Secondary traumatic stress isn’t limited to these fields and can occur after an isolated incident or a series.
Frequent exposure to other people’s trauma can lead to secondary trauma. This can include:
“Working with those that have experienced trauma, these professionals are exposed to stories of trauma that include intricate details,” Lurie says. “Hearing the recounting of the traumatic stories, the professional may visualize and endure the account as though they had lived it themselves.”
Occupation and exposure to trauma are the primary contributing factors. Others include:
Working in a field where you’re helping others all day can make it easy to set aside your own needs. Caring for others doesn’t have to overshadow your needs, and it’s crucial not to ignore your personal experiences.
“Helping professionals often put their own needs and their own mental health behind those of their patients and clients,” Lurie says. “But there’s a cost, and it can be high. If you need support too, please do your best to take care of yourself.”
If you’re feeling symptoms of secondary trauma, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:
Julian C. Lagoy, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health says, “I would advise someone who’s experienced secondary trauma to talk about it with loved ones who truly care for them and have their best intentions at heart.”
If what you’re experiencing seems to play a role in your day-to-day, also consider connecting with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma to support you.
They can provide you with tools and strategies to navigate your environment in a way that’s healthy for you moving forward. You may also find this training and support through a professional group or organization.
Lurie says that a major way you can support a loved one is by validating their experience.
“The best way to support someone who has experienced secondary trauma is to listen to them with compassion and understanding,” Lagoy says.
A tangible way to support them could be helping them with regular tasks that may be more difficult right now.
Consider these tips:
Remember to discuss what would be helpful with your friend or family member. Just knowing you’re present and supportive could be enough.
According to Lurie, in the workplace, someone who has experienced secondary trauma could be further supported by having their experience validated.
If you’re experiencing secondary trauma in the workplace, consider speaking with your colleagues about discussing your concerns collectively and potentially asking leadership to offer additional support systems.
If you’re a person who’s within the leadership of a direct service field, this could look like:
Many of these workplace adjustments have been shown to reduce the impact of secondary trauma, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Secondary trauma is known by many names. Whatever you call it, it describes what can happen to people who support others through trauma, especially on a recurrent basis.
Because people are naturally empathetic, it’s a common occurrence within direct service or helping professions.
Caring about the people you connect with doesn’t have to mean your job takes over your life.
In addition to creating healthy boundaries between work and home, ensuring you have a safe space to process your feelings is crucial, as well as feeling supported within your role at work.
If you feel like your experiences are negatively impacting your personal or professional life, reaching out to support groups or connecting with a mental health professional trained in trauma counseling is always an option.
If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health support.
Last medically reviewed on July 15, 2022
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