When a person experiences a traumatizing event, such as a fatal car accident, natural disaster, or violence, it can lead to an unhealthy mental outcome. They may become hyper-sensitive to their surroundings and experience fear when in situations they consider dangerous.
Such people will likely experience restlessness or develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Approximately 12 million adults experience PTSD annually in the U.S. Unfortunately, when exposed to a person with trauma, it’s possible to develop similar symptoms yourself. Sometimes, these symptoms are as severe as first-hand trauma.
If you’re experiencing disturbing symptoms connected to an event you weren’t part of, please seek help. You can find peace again.
Take a moment to read this guide to learn more about secondary trauma.
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Defining Secondary Trauma
The brain is the control center for your body, making you who you’re. However, for some people, their brains are like a battlefield. These are people who may have experienced traumatizing events in life.
Due to stress, these people may end up developing health conditions such as PTSD. It’s possible to develop similar symptoms when dealing with PTSD patients.
Secondary trauma occurs when a person who didn’t experience a traumatizing event first-hand hears details of its distressing components. Some people use this term interchangeably with vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, but they are different.
The Differences Between Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma
Compassion Fatigue– Compassion fatigue or secondary PTSD is the disruptive by-product of working closely with traumatized individuals. This condition affects professionals who handle any patient type.
Vicarious trauma– This describes having an altered view of the world following exposure to traumatized persons.
Secondary Trauma: Who’s at Risk?
Do you have a responsibility to care for a person who has experienced a crisis? As disaster and trauma studies show, you’re at risk of secondary traumatization.
Historically, individuals at significant risk were those in the frontline or emergency services fields: firefighters, child abuse investigators, emergency medical professionals, police, and other trauma-exposed areas. However, this list has expanded to include a broad range of professionals who work with families and children in crisis.
The current list includes psychiatrists, foster parents, human service workers and even family lawyers. Over 25% of therapists working with traumatized populations are at high risk of secondary traumatization and related conditions such as vicarious trauma and PTSD.
Reasons Professionals Develop Secondary Trauma
Here are reasons caregivers develop secondary trauma:
Empathy– Empathy is essential for mental health providers and caregivers. Direct trauma victims get better because mental health workers are emotionally supporting them. However, empathizing with a direct trauma victim makes the worker vulnerable to internalizing some of the victim’s trauma-related pain.
Lack of Recovery Time– Mental health workers who deal with traumatized patients repeatedly listen to horrific stories. You may suffer secondary trauma because of insufficient time to recover from the frequent shock.
‘Re-activation’ of Personal Trauma– Some of these workers may have experienced traumatic events in their own life. To some extent, their pain can be “reactivated” primarily when they work with a patient who has suffered a similar experience. This interaction can act as a painful reminder of their own experience.
Lack of Systemic Support– No public system seems to have invested in supporting mental health workers who care for traumatized patients. The duty of addressing secondary trauma appears to fall to program directors, supervisors, and other players trying to create a positive work environment.
Lack of Group Cohesiveness– Clinical wisdom emphasizes the crucial role of group cohesiveness in managing individual stress levels. When you feel appreciated by your team members, it builds social immunity to extreme stressors. Lack of group cohesiveness can cause increased stress for professionals working in this field.
What are the Symptoms of Secondary Trauma Symptoms?
Several indicators show that you’re facing a significant risk of developing secondary trauma. Examples of overwhelming emotions you might feel include anxiety, anger, rage, or depression, and the list is endless. The negative consequences of secondary trauma symptoms can also manifest physically as stomachaches, headaches, and lethargy.
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Need for Leadership
The supervisor in an organization plays a pivotal role in helping his team maintain the right mind frame. An effective supervisor must be able to manage their stress while offering emotional support and encouragement to team members.
A good supervisor should be able to tell the extent to which team members have become alienated from the original purpose of their work. When the work demands exceed the team’s ability to cope, the team is at significant risk of developing secondary trauma.
The supervisor needs to respond to their team’s unique stressors and needs. The supervisor must create the right work environment by modeling good communication and offering support and feedback. Supervisors should help their team establish healthy boundaries and create opportunities to discuss challenges.
When a worker feels emotionally drained because of their involvement in a specific complex case, the supervisor should encourage the team member to seek help from trauma specialists.
It’s common for workers to exhibit some short-lived problems, such as a lack of enthusiasm after being involved in a complex case. However, should such a challenge persist for several weeks, the team member needs to seek help from an experienced professional in mental health.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
Any medical provider can suffer from secondary traumatic stress (STS). Most often, this condition comes from actual trauma symptoms. STS describes the emotional duress that results from hearing about first-hand trauma experiences from others.
The difference between PTSD and STS is that STS is an outcome of indirect exposure (observing profound emotions in others, delivering sad news to a patient’s family, hearing heartbreaking stories from victims). STS can be difficult to recognize.
What are the Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Secondary traumatic stress disorder describes the extreme state of stress, resulting in feelings of pessimism, hopelessness, indifference, and general disinterest.
Secondary traumatic stress disorder can affect your ability to complete assignments or manage relationships. Some signs include:
- Reduced productivity at work
- Lack of patience or irritability
- Poor self-care
- Mood swings
- Isolation or decreased interactions with colleagues
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty focusing
- Feeling of powerlessness
The Phases of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder
Zealot Phase– You’re still involved, available, committed and putting in extra hours. You may notice some challenges arising when dealing with people, but you choose to dismiss them. In most cases, you feel stressed, but you try to justify the stress.
Irritability Phase– At this stage, you daydream and become easily distracted. The irritability can lead to oversights and doing things not as per the book. Your colleagues or family members might notice your personality is changing. You may also feel under-resourced and undervalued, leading to impatience and anger.
Withdrawal Phase– Enthusiasm fades, and complaints of fatigue start to arise. Poor immune can make you feel tired all the time. You may experience confusion and have difficulty focusing, making it challenging to meet your targets. You may withdraw and detach yourself from others.
Zombie Phase– Self-doubt creeps in. You may feel as if you’re on autopilot. It’s possible to feel disconnected from others and also your career. An overwhelming feeling of worthlessness and low self-esteem may rule the better part of your days.
Tips for Preventing Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder
When there’s a lot of expectation on you, and you’re working so hard to help others, taking care of yourself can sometimes be challenging. Here are some tips on preventing secondary traumatic stress disorder:
Self-Care Activities– On the personal level, take time to do self-care. Take frequent breaks as you work, and don’t be burdened to ask for help. Set work boundaries to avoid over-committing. Eat well and exercise as often as possible. Develop hobbies and interests outside of work.
Support Network– At work, surround yourself with a support network of collaborative peers, mentors, and co-workers. There’s no reason for you to struggle alone. Seek resources for training and counseling available in your community.
Managing Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder– Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re experiencing secondary traumatic stress disorder. As such, the first critical step is awareness. It would be best if you prioritize your well-being. Establish work-life balance. It would help if you took time away from work to allow you to refuel.
Since prioritizing your well-being and refueling looks different for everyone, it’s vital to come up with ways how you can nourish your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being daily.
Your way of self-care should be sustainable. To some people, self-care may mean going on short walks daily or jamming out to music. Or maybe it means going to the park in the evenings or going on adventures. Regardless of your self-care routine, stay connected to meanings to help you find joy and hope as you work.
Do you engage in reflective practice? The more self-aware you’re in the moment, the more grounded you’re in your professional. Don’t focus on others and dismiss your needs.
PTSD is a psychological disorder that’s more common than people think. Research shows that about 90% of people experience at least one harrowing event in their lifetime. A traumatic event is an experience that exposes someone to severe injury or actual or threatened death.
This event could be sexual abuse, or gruesome murder, among other traumatic events. However, it’s important to note that not every person who experiences trauma develops PTSD.
How Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Affects Families
PTSD can have a negative impact on parents, such as hitting children. It might make parents feel like they are letting their children down for not being there for them. PTSD makes it difficult for people to see the positive side of their parenting.
The first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they hear the term PTSD is war and military. The fact that people link PTSD with the military is a significant challenge. While there is a heightened public awareness of PTSD and secondary trauma, the public’s information may be incomplete or inaccurate. Lack of correct information risks those living with PTSD or STS being misunderstood.
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What are the Symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD fall into four major categories:
Intrusion: This refers to a flashback that is so vivid. Trauma survivors may feel they are re-living the traumatic event or seeing it flash before their eyes. Intrusive thoughts may include repeated distressing dreams or involuntary memories.
Avoidance– Trauma victims try to avoid reminders of the traumatic experience. Avoidance may include avoiding traumatic material, place, activity, or any situation that may trigger a traumatic experience.
Alterations in Cognition– This describes biased thoughts about the cause or consequence of the traumatic event leading to self-blame, anger, guilt, or shame. Alterations also manifest in less interest in activities you previously enjoyed or choosing to avoid happiness.
Altercations in reactivity– This may include being irritable and, having anger issues, behaving in a self-destructive manner. It may also involve being restless and having problems concentrating.
However, for you to be diagnosed with PTSD, these symptoms must persist at least for more than a month and must affect your daily functioning. In most cases, PTSD often occurs alongside conditions such as substance abuse, depression, and memory problems.
PTSD Related Conditions
Acute Stress Disorder– This condition is like PTSD. Acute Stress Disorder occurs in reaction to a traumatic experience. People with this disorder may have nightmares or flashbacks. These symptoms can make it different to lead an everyday life.
Adjustment Disorder– This disorder results from a stressful life event. Symptoms can include feeling hopeless, tensed, acting defiantly, and showing impulsive behavior. These symptoms may affect critical areas of life, such as school, work, or even social interactions.
Reactive Attachment Disorder– This disorder occurs in children who have experienced neglect or deprivation during their early days. It mainly occurs in children who lack stimulation, affection, and emotional comfort.
Dis-inhibited Social Engagement Disorder– The disorder occurs in infants who have experienced social neglect before age two. The condition may lead to a child engaging in culturally unacceptable behavior with unfamiliar adults.
Get Help for Secondary Trauma at Emerald Isle
Traumatizing experiences can have a significant impact on people. However, the damage from these troubling events doesn’t always confine itself to victims. If a spouse, a family member, or even a friend goes through a traumatizing event, feelings of empathy towards the victims could cause secondary trauma.
If you’re suffering from secondary trauma, it’s essential to seek help from mental health care professionals, and our dedicated clinicians at Emerald Isle Health and Recovery are ready and waiting. Give yourself a break, and reach out for life-changing help today!