Secondary Trauma

Most people have heard the term “burnout”, and while that’s an important concept to understand in our fast paced world, a less commonly understood, but possibly more important, term is “secondary trauma”. Burnout is the result of general occupational stress, and anyone can become burnt out by their job; it can be the result of a brutal commute, a grueling schedule, or a lack of resources at work. Secondary trauma results from hearing about someone’s trauma, witnessing trauma or the aftermath, or repeating someone’s traumatic story. This is not exclusive to work the way burn out it, and can occur any time. Social workers, educators, nurses and other helping professions often have high incidences of secondary trauma, but you can also experience secondary trauma as a friend or family member.

The signs and symptoms of secondary trauma often mimic signs of burnout, general stress, and several other physical and psychological ailments. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of secondary trauma, particularly if you confront trauma regularly so that you can be aware of how this is impacting you. Signs and symptoms include difficulty concentrating, feeling “numb”, difficulty regulating emotional, feeling an overall loss of satisfaction, social isolation or withdrawal, changes in sleep, appetite or personal hygiene, and feeling detached from others. Additionally, those experiencing secondary trauma often also feeling an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, body aches, and an increase in physical illness such as frequent colds.

Further, secondary trauma can have far reaching consequences going beyond the environment in which you’ve confronted the trauma. People experiencing secondary trauma may also have difficulty with tension in relationships with coworkers, friends, and partners, poor boundaries, difficulty communicating, and a lack of energy to put into hobbies, interests, and socialization.

Addressing secondary trauma is going to look different for everyone, and to what extent it needs to be addressed is going to depend on when you recognize that you need to address this. The sooner you begin to mitigate the effects of secondary trauma, the better the outcome is going to be. Creating strong boundaries is chief among the strategies to address secondary trauma; this may look like strong boundaries between a daycare provider and the children and families she works with, clearing separating work and personal experiences, and now allowing work to infringe on personal boundaries. Maintaining a work-life balance is also important, as is having a realistic, go to plan for self.

Finally, your own experiences with trauma may lead you to be more susceptible to secondary trauma. It is important that if you have had any experiences with trauma yourself, you are taking the steps to meet with a therapist to address this. A therapist is again a safe space allowing you to connect how your past experiences and your current experiences are converging and leading to this secondary trauma response. It’s important for you to heal, and it can be scary to heal alone. A therapist can guide you and support you. Even if you have no experienced trauma yourself, you may find professional counseling valuable in addressing secondary trauma. It can be very easy to hold on to someone else’s pain, and very difficult to let it go. Additionally, a therapist can heal you to identify a reasonable, realistic self care plan, identify necessary boundaries, and work on communication.

Experiencing secondary trauma is common, and can be scary, but with diligence and awareness, with openness to treatment, you can overcome this experience and balance your life.

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