Here’s How Secondary Trauma Affects Your Emotional Well-Being

Secondary traumatic stress refers to the emotional distress and turmoil that occurs from indirect exposure to trauma. People with secondary trauma often exhibit similar symptoms to those who have experienced trauma directly.

Caregivers and professionals working in trauma-exposed fields (first responders, therapists, clinical social workers, emergency nurses) are particularly susceptible to secondary traumatization. However, regardless of your profession, knowing the risk factors and symptoms are essential. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Secondary Trauma?

Secondary trauma (also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder) refers to a cluster of emotional reactions caused by frequent exposure to trauma. Although it’s not an official diagnosis, secondary traumatic stress (STS) mimics a form of secondary PTSD.

Some of the common symptoms include:

  • an overwhelming sense of helplessness
  • preoccupation or obsession with the traumatic events
  • withdrawal from personal relationships
  • sleep problems and disturbances
  • appetite issues
  • somatic issues (headaches, stomach pains, nausea)
  • apathy or irritation
  • depression and anxiety symptoms

Secondary traumatic stress can happen after any indirect exposure to a traumatic event. However, you may be at a greater risk for developing mental health symptoms if you indirectly witnessed the following:

  • an act of sexual assault
  • a violent or gruesome death
  • natural disasters
  • child abuse or neglect
  • serious accidents (especially in vehicles)

These events can also compound themselves. That means if you’ve had repeated exposure to several incidents, you may be more vulnerable to their emotional impact.

How Does Secondary Trauma Affect Your Mental Health?

Experiencing secondary trauma can profoundly impact all areas of your life. Some of the more concerning negative consequences include:

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion or empathy fatigue often coincides with secondary trauma exposure. Compassion fatigue refers to a state of emotional exhaustion. This exhaustion can make it difficult to experience empathy, compassion, or kindness toward others.

Survivor’s Guilt

Trauma survivors may experience a profound sense of guilt, shame, or unworthiness due to someone else’s trauma. These feelings can correlate with other PTSD symptoms, and they can have a significant impact on your mental and physical health.

Desire to Numb or Escape

Some people use maladaptive coping strategies to cope with secondary traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, trauma often coincides with issues like substance abuse, disordered eating, and compulsive spending. You might self-medicate intense STS symptoms because they’re too painful to endure.

Job Burnout

As mentioned, helping professionals in high-stress industries (first responders, healthcare professionals, mental health professionals, human service workers, child abuse investigators, and emergency nurses) are at a greater risk of experiencing symptoms of secondary traumatic stress.

Some people with burnout leave their industry altogether. But others continue working in their roles despite their emotional distress. But if they don’t take care of themselves, their mental health undoubtedly affects their job performance and clinical practice.

Some of the acute symptoms of job burnout include:

  • cynicism towards work and clients
  • inability to make or maintain boundaries at work
  • persistent feelings of hopelessness, dread, and irritation
  • “checking out” at work altogether
  • withdrawal from friends and family members

Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver burnout is similar to job burnout, except you can’t necessarily “turn off” your responsibilities at home. Spousal and familial caregivers coping with secondary trauma may feel increasingly frustrated or lonely in their roles.

Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress

It’s important to try to take care of yourself if you have symptoms of secondary trauma. Here are some basic tips:

Psychoeducation: It’s important to know PTSD symptoms in yourself and others. Having this awareness can help you recognize when you’re struggling.

Social support: Commit to building meaningful, genuine relationships with friends and family members that care about your well-being. Join a support group if you need to be around like-minded individuals.

Set boundaries: If you work in a high-stress environment, you must learn to detach and disengage. Implement limits around the work you do. Try to avoid taking work home with you.

Practice self-care activities: Spend time taking care of yourself. Engage in meaningful hobbies and activities that make you feel good.

Avoid excessive media exposure: When you’re at home, try disconnecting from the ‘heaviness’ of your day. Turn off the graphic news accounts. Try to limit the effects of vicarious traumatization through doomscrolling on social media.

How Therapy Can Help You Cope From Secondary Trauma Symptoms

If you feel deeply impacted by vicarious trauma, you may benefit from seeking professional support. You don’t have to keep waiting for things to get better. You also don’t have to suffer alone.

Whether you’ve experienced a direct trauma or you experience symptoms of secondary trauma, your emotional distress is real. You deserve support and guidance during this vulnerable time.

Therapy can help you cope with the traumatic material you’ve experienced. Together, we can discuss your experiences safely and review coping strategies that can support your recovery. No matter where you are on your healing journey, I am here to support you. Contact me today to get started.

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Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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