Secondary Traumatization Considered
In the public discourse about trauma, we often hear about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD. The majority of the conversation seems to be around recognizing the signs of primary trauma, identifying its origins, the after-effects and therapeutic approaches to these issues. We seem to hear much less often about secondary traumatization however.
Unintentional as it may be, the effects of secondary trauma, even its very existence, sometimes seem to get short shrift. It’s often an issue of awareness. Through no fault of their own, people are simply unaware of the effects that someone’s directly experienced trauma can have very real effects on another person. More often than not though, it’s not a lack of awareness so much as the issue of secondary traumatization is downplayed.
Someone experiencing secondary traumatization may compare their experience to the primary trauma sufferer and convince themselves that their feelings don’t have merit or that their needs are unimportant or less important. Secondary traumatization is often experienced by professionals who are in a position to support others who’ve experienced trauma.
A sense of duty or selflessness can lead to someone in such a role to discount their own feelings or try to endure their own symptoms. Even mental health professionals and others who have training may fall victim to this flawed thinkingEveryone’s trauma experience is valid and secondary traumatization is a very real phenomenon and one worthy of therapeutic intervention and treatment.
What is Secondary Traumatization?
Secondary traumatization is a term used to describe the emotional and psychological effect which can occur when a person is exposed to the trauma experienced by someone else. This can happen to individuals who have witnessed or heard about a traumatic event that has happened to someone close to them or to individuals who work in professions such as first responders, therapists or humanitarian aid workers who are regularly exposed to trauma.
Witnessing or hearing first-hand accounts of traumatic events can leave individuals feeling anxious, exhausted or overwhelmed. It is important to recognize the signs of secondary traumatization and take steps to heal and care for oneself.
Real-world examples include therapists working with victims of abuse, emergency response teams involved in mass casualty incidents, and journalists reporting on war or natural disasters. As a community, we need to be compassionate to those who are experiencing secondary traumatization and provide them with the support they need to heal.
People who may be more likely to experience secondary traumatization include:
- Law Enforcement
- Paramedics and Other First Responders
- Doctors and Nurses
- Mental Health Counselors
- Social Workers and Case Workers
How Secondary Trauma Can Impact Your Life
Experiencing trauma can have profound implications on a person’s well-being, and while many of us are aware of the physical and emotional toll that primary trauma can have, secondary trauma can have similarly significant impacts.
Bearing witness to or being exposed to experiences of others’ trauma, such as hearing the stories of trauma survivors or working in professions that involve frequent exposure to trauma can have significant impact.
While the effects of secondary trauma may not be as immediately apparent, they can manifest over time and have lasting impacts on one’s mental, emotional, and physical health. It is particularly to people who work in fields where secondary traumatization is more common to learn to recognize the signs of this type of trauma and to respond appropriately.
Signs of Secondary Traumatization:
- Feeling overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
- Excessive worrying and rumination about clients or patients.
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering things related to work with trauma survivors.
- Increased irritability or feelings of anger.
- Disconnectedness from family, friends and colleagues.
- Feeling helplessness, hopelessness or despair.
- Avoiding conversations or activities that could be triggering.
- Excessive worrying about your own safety or the safety of others.
10 Ways to Cope with Secondary Traumatization
Coping with secondary traumatization is about more than just self-care; it’s about acknowledging the impact of trauma on your mental health and wellbeing. Whether it’s taking breaks to recharge, talking with a supportive co-worker, or seeking help from a mental health professional, we must have strategies to help us manage the emotional toll of secondary traumatization.
Remember, it’s okay to not be okay – but it’s important to take steps to care for ourselves. If your work is rooted in caring for others, you must tend to your own garden first. Medice, cura te ipsum.
Here are 10 tools and tasks to help you cope with the effects of secondary traumatization:
- Ground yourself and practice self-care: Take time to do activities that help you feel grounded such as meditation, yoga or taking a walk in nature. Make sure to take breaks throughout the day and prioritize healthy habits like eating nutritious meals, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly.
- Connect with supportive loved ones: Reach out to family and friends who can provide emotional support and understanding. Talking about your feelings in a safe environment may help you process the trauma of others more effectively.
- Utilize relaxation techniques: Be mindful of your own physical and mental needs by incorporating calming activities like deep breathing, stretching and listening to soothing music.
- Set boundaries: Recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed and upset by others’ suffering, and give yourself permission to take a step back from the situation. This can help prevent burnout and keep your own mental health in check.
- Seek professional help: Speak with a qualified therapist for help managing your feelings and navigating the effects of secondary traumatization.
- Participate in peer support groups: Meeting with colleagues who are facing similar experiences can provide a sense of solidarity and valuable coping tools.
- Engage in positive activities: Create space for yourself to enjoy hobbies, read books or watch movies that bring you peace and joy.
- Develop a support system: Choose people in your life who can help you when needed and provide positive reinforcement during moments of distress.
- Establish healthy communication: Communicate clearly with those around you to ensure they understand the impact of secondary traumatization on your mental health.
- Practice self-compassion: Be gentle and understanding with yourself during difficult times. Remind yourself that secondary traumatization is normal, and you can get through it with the right support.
Resources for Supporting Those Living With Secondary Trauma
Living with secondary trauma can be overwhelming and isolating. However, it’s important to remember that there are numerous resources available to support individuals in these difficult times. A variety of online support groups and therapy programs provide a safe space to share experiences and connect with others who understand the unique challenges of secondary trauma. Additionally, many organizations offer educational materials, workshops, and resources to help individuals better understand and cope with secondary trauma. It’s crucial for anyone experiencing secondary trauma to seek out these resources and prioritize self-care in order to move towards healing and resilience.
Through understanding the impact of secondary traumatization, it’s essential to learn how to cope with the after-effects. Taking the time to recognize emotions and practice self-care can go a long way towards managing stress and helping to process difficult or challenging experiences. Remembering that you don’t have to face these feelings alone can be helpful in reaching out for support from trained professionals, organizations, or well-meaning friends alike. Recognizing secondary trauma is an important step in effectively navigating life’s traumas, so reach out today and start building those connections that will help you survive and thrive in spite of your struggles.
Help for Secondary Traumatization
Taking steps to improve your mental health can be a challenge. But, seeking professional treatment and support can be a transformative and life-changing experience that’s well worth pursuing. Most people with trauma-related conditions and mental health disorders aren’t fully aware of how their symptoms are affecting their lives, where they come from and what can be done to help. No one deserves to suffer from the consequences of unresolved trauma or an undiagnosed or undertreated mental health condition.
At Reconnect, our specialized mental health programs offer intensive trauma and mental health treatment for a wide range of conditions. From major depression to generalized anxiety, PTSD and CPTSD, our behavioral health specialists are dedicated to helping people overcome and live better lives. If you or someone you love is living with a mental health disorder or the symptoms of trauma, we want to help. Give Reconnect a call at (310) 713-6739 today, to find out how we can be of service.