Trauma can affect many different people in several ways. The effects of traumatic events can even be felt by those who may not have been immediately involved in the traumatic event itself. Those who suffer from trauma like natural disasters, acts of personal violence, physical or emotional abuse, or any other kind of difficult experience may have several lingering traumatic effects to cope with. However, trauma can also manifest in those who are experiencing these events second-hand. Secondary trauma is a way for the effects of trauma to reach even more people, and come as a result of a person who experienced trauma sharing their stories in detail, or even by a person viewing graphic material from the scene of a traumatic event. The effects of secondary trauma can be complicated and may require various unique approaches to help a person learn how to deal with secondary trauma.
Defining Secondary Trauma
Secondary trauma is a traumatic experience that results from a person viewing, listening to, or engaging with traumatic events presented by another source. It can be a counselor hearing about detailed and painful descriptions of abuse, viewing graphic photographs from a violent crime scene, or can even occur as a person watches the news covering natural disasters, civil conflicts, or armed conflicts and warzones. Those viewing or listening to these accounts may have their own visceral reaction to the effects of this trauma, and can even develop traumatic symptoms as a result of the detailed descriptions, vivid imagery, artistic recounts, or photographs that may be related to a specific traumatic event. Secondary trauma can also become intense enough to cause traumatic feelings in people, even if they are experiencing this trauma second-hand. It may require a person to seek professional help or make daily adjustments to their lives to cope with the effects of secondary trauma.
Understanding Who Is at Risk
Secondary trauma can affect anyone who is involved with a person who has experienced a traumatic event in their lives. Those who are naturally empathetic towards others, especially their friends, family, and peers, can be at an increased risk of secondary trauma as they establish themselves as a support system. These same individuals can often be at risk of compassion fatigue.
Particular occupations also have a high risk of exposure to secondary trauma. Counselors and child-care professionals are frequently tasked with experiencing traumatic events second-hand as they interact and help their clients. First responders are in a difficult situation of being involved both in experiencing traumatic situations firsthand, as well as working with people who have experienced traumatic events and have to recount the information to determine how to best solve a situation or gather evidence for a case surrounding the traumatic event. As a person gleans more information from others involved in trauma, they can put themselves at an increased risk for developing secondary trauma.
How Secondary Trauma Is Different Than Vicarious Trauma
Secondary trauma and vicarious trauma are often used interchangeably, there are some key differences between the two circumstances. Vicarious trauma can look similar on the surface but is often caused by continuous and repeated exposure to traumatic events over an extended period of time. The effects of vicarious trauma can set in gradually, slowly altering a person’s worldview. Secondary trauma can set in quickly and can be tied to a singular traumatic event, or multiple, depending on the kinds of exposure and how a person reacted to experiencing them second-hand. The sudden onset of this secondary trauma can cause several complications, as well as develop into its own psychiatric disorder that can even be akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depending on the person and their own experiences.
Symptoms of Secondary Trauma
Secondary trauma can affect a person in a number of different ways. Emotional turmoil can manifest as a part of a person’s daily life, increasing feelings of irritability, frustration, or sadness in many situations. A person may also compromise their own health routines, and begin eating inconsistently, skipping meals, or might even have trouble falling or staying asleep to ensure a good night’s rest.
Lack of focus may also be apparent, as a person finds themselves unable to focus on tasks or responsibilities at hand. This can be a result of a lack of proper rest, the presence of intrusive thoughts related to the images they have seen of traumatic events, or they may be replaying the words that a person had said to them, creating a harrowing image in one’s head.
Secondary trauma may also compromise a person’s outlook on life and they might begin to see the world in a more hopeless or dangerous light. Fear and anxiety can become more and more prevalent through a person’s daily life, and feelings of sadness, lack of motivation, as well as mental and physical exhaustion can make accomplishing routine tasks or responsibilities more difficult. A person may also begin to fill themselves with doubt of their abilities, future prospects, or become more defined by guilt, shame, or a feeling of powerlessness, even if they are not at fault for anything in particular. The effects of secondary trauma can extend far beyond the time when a person first heard about or saw evidence of a horrific or traumatizing event, and can create a situation where a person views their world in a wholly new way as a result of the second-hand experience.
Overcoming Secondary Trauma
Dealing with secondary trauma can be a daunting task, but there are ways that each individual can begin to process the thoughts and scenes in their head and move towards a more healthy lifestyle. For those whose job is intricately linked to traumatic experiences, such as counselors, medical professionals, and first responders, it may be necessary to put boundaries between oneself and their work. While the jobs they perform may require a great deal of empathy, having rigid times clearly defined for when a person is or is not working can help them get the mental break they may need to continue effectively performing their responsibilities while safely processing traumatic stories and images in a healthy way.
Those suffering from secondary trauma may also benefit from seeking social outlets and increasing physical activity. Joining a sports team or club can be a great way to address the social and physical needs that a person may have, while also providing an outlet for their stresses and energies. While a body at rest can allow the mind to wander through the harrowing images in one’s mind, keeping the body active can help the brain process and move through these difficult images and intrusive thoughts while improving one’s outlook and attitude to the world around them.
Understanding how secondary trauma may affect a person can help each individual identify the symptoms and sources early on, and thus help address the complicated struggle before problematic coping mechanisms set in. Employing self-checks, creating balanced schedules between one’s personal life and professional obligations, and allowing time for a person to engage in their hobbies and self-care can all help prevent secondary trauma from taking hold of one’s mind or emotional state.
Keeping socially connected can also keep a person around a swell of support and provide necessary emotional outlets when needed. Family members and coworkers alike can all understand the unique struggles that a person may experience in their particular line of work, or can understand the empathetic nature of a person trying to support another through their trauma. Early identification can empower each person to be more proactive and aware of the risks involved, as well as create a plan early on to address the chance of secondary trauma in their own lives. However, professional care may also be needed depending on the person, and how deeply the traumatic images or words have affected each individual.