Trauma is very unpredictable. Things individuals might have never thought would affect them often do. It can be especially unpredictable when individuals respond to someone else’s trauma. Certain professions put people at a greater risk of experiencing secondary trauma, stress caused by someone else's trauma. Some of those professions include social workers, doctors, nurses, first responders, and mental health professionals.
Lawyers are also at risk of experiencing secondary trauma due to their profession. Legal professionals listen to the cases of their clients and sometimes experience a traumatic response to their stories. For that reason, it is important for legal professionals to be able to cope with experiencing secondary trauma. Learning more about PTSD and how to cope with its symptoms is an important first step in the journey to coping with secondary trauma.
The Stress of Working as a Legal Professional
Most careers in the legal industry come with a lot of stress. Lawyers, by nature, are high achievers. That is what makes them good at their jobs. Although, this also frequently causes an influx in the amount of stress they experience during a work day. This stress begins to manifest through mental health symptoms and negatively impacts physical health. Symptoms manifest through headaches and muscle aches, and can wreak havoc on the digestive system.
As it is said, stress is the silent killer. Learning to cope with stress is essential, but legal professionals also need to watch out for the ways their clients and cases can affect them mentally. In recent years, there has been more research regarding the prevalence of substance use and other mental health concerns among American attorneys.
The study took a sample of 12,825 attorneys who completed a survey to assess substance use and symptoms of depression and anxiety. The results indicated massive behavioral health issues, with “20.6% screening positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.” The research also indicated that levels of depression, anxiety, and stress were “significant” among attorneys, with "28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.
Legal professionals need more mental health resources and programs. Harmful alcohol use is at a higher rate than any other professional population. Aside from the stress that comes with the job, it is important for individuals to ask themselves how much of this stress and substance use is a response to secondary trauma. The trauma they are exposed to through clients and cases must be accounted for when addressing mental health among legal professionals.
Experiencing Secondary Trauma
As mentioned above briefly, secondary trauma is a stress response from another person’s trauma. Sometimes referred to as secondhand trauma or trauma exposure response, secondary trauma will cause individuals to experience an array of symptoms similar to those of PTSD. Some of those symptoms include:
Feeling increasingly anxious or hyperactive
Experiencing chronic exhaustion
Having dissociative symptoms
Extreme feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or fear
The development of substance use disorders
Another term to describe secondary trauma is vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma, according to the Office for Victims of Crimes (OVC), is defined as “an occupational challenge” for individuals “due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence.” Individuals working and volunteering in the following fields are often at risk of vicarious trauma:
Emergency medical services
Professionals in these fields are often listening to clients’ stories, viewing footage that can be traumatizing, reviewing case files, dealing with the aftermath of violent crimes, or experiencing a number of PTSD symptoms from their clients. Unfortunately, in order to help others, these individuals must experience these traumatic events “vicariously” through their clients' stories and the evidence presented to them.
Some can compartmentalize – a psychological mechanism that allows people to separate their thoughts and feelings from a particular situation – and not let this exposure to trauma negatively impact them. Not everyone can do this naturally, however, even those who can experience a change in their worldview. Individuals either become “cynical or fearful, or they can become more appreciative of what they have, or both,” says the OVC.
How Can You Cope With Secondary Trauma?
It can be hard for individuals to determine their ability to prevent secondhand trauma when they do not really know how they will respond to others’ trauma. Individuals can, however, learn to cope with it in a healthy way. The best way to cope with secondary trauma is by learning how to cope with trauma in general. Individuals must be proactive. It is crucial for individuals to be able to recognize the signs of secondary trauma within themselves. That is the only way they can seek treatment for themselves.
That is also the best way to recognize the signs within others. Co-workers and other legal professionals may be going through the same thing. In addition to needing more mental health resources for legal professionals, learning to be there for each other makes all the difference when it comes to battling secondary trauma.
At Chateau Recovery, we offer several evidence-based modalities for treating trauma and PTSD. Some of those include eye movement desensitization and reprogramming (EMDR), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). What makes Chateau successful in treating our clients is our combination of evidence-based modalities and our holistic approach to treatment. With the help of our trained clinical professionals, we have the tools to help individuals in their paths to treating secondary trauma, but they have to want it for themselves first. Reach out today to learn more about all that we have to offer.