Understanding Secondary Trauma

In the last decade or so, I’ve finally heard this phrase get some real air time.  Secondary trauma is a real thing, and as caregivers we are NOT immune to this form of damaging traumatic stress.

What is secondary trauma?  The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines it as, “Emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.  Its symptoms mimic those of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).”

Everyone talks about burnout, but are we addressing WHY we burn out?  There’s more to it than just the long hours.

One of my first exposures to secondary trauma was back in 2001 when I lived in Ireland.  I worked at a homeless shelter that was run primarily by us international volunteers. The volunteers all lived together in a house, walking distance from the shelter.  We were young hopeful early twenty-somethings, hoping to “give back.” Within one week of working there, my idea of the world had been blown apart.  I saw and experienced violence.  I watched irreparable damage be done to others because of the addiction to the drink.  I heard first hand accounts of families killed and destroyed because of “the troubles” (referring to the conflict in Northern Ireland).

I have too many stories and memories to recall in this little post, so I will focus on what I learned.  Whenever we would come back from our shifts at the shelter, we’d sit and help the other person process what had happened while they were there.  Sometimes it was just little updates, and other times it was major.  We really had no idea what we were doing or even that this act of being for there for one another was so crucial.  But we did it anyway, and we did it consistently.  Having a place to put all those traumatic stories was crucial to our mental health.  We didn’t have therapists, but we had each other.

As the years have gone on, I’ve continued to process when I need to and seek out help through therapy or friends.  But not because this has ever been offered or suggested at my various jobs.  In fact, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma are rarely if ever mentioned.  These tools were incorporated into my self care regime, primarily due to my initial foundation learned all those years ago, by accident.

You may THINK you are someone who doesn’t take “work” home with you.  But have you ever snapped at your child, a stranger on the train, your spouse or parent for a tiny little reason?  Of course you have.  This stuff affects us, it just does.  And while I will scream up and down that you need to take your sick days, and use your vacation time, I will also remind you, you need to process what you see and hear as well.  The danger is too great that you will lose yourself and what makes you uniquely you, if you ignore the signs of secondary traumatic stress.

What are the signs?

Hyper-vigilance, hopelessness, guilt, avoidance, survival coping, social withdrawal, minimizing, anger and cynicism, sleeplessness, insensitivity to violence, illness, fear, chronic exhaustion, disconnection, poor boundaries, loss of creativity, inability to listen, and diminished self care.

One book I highly recommend is called “Trauma Stewardship: An Everday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky.  Also just a reminder that many jobs offer the EAP (Employee Assistance program) which often gives you at least three free therapy sessions, which is completely confidential.

Take care of YOU.

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