Secondary and Vicarious Trauma

Taking care of those who have suffered traumatic events can take its toll on the caregiver, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. For those whose profession requires empathic responses and supports for vulnerable and traumatized individuals on a daily basis, this can lead caring professionals to develop secondary or vicarious traumatic stress.

If left unchecked, secondary traumatic stress can lead to compassion fatigue and ultimately burnout, causing professionals to leave their place of work or field entirely.

Studies show that from 6% to 26% of therapists working with traumatized populations, and up to 50% of child welfare workers, are at high risk of secondary traumatic stress or the related conditions of PTSD and vicarious trauma. (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
  • Vicarious or Secondary Trauma –Traumatic Stress behaviors and emotions resulting from internalizing events experienced by another.
  • Compassion Fatigue – Fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from constant demands of caring for others. The weariness that comes from caring.
  • Burnout – Physical and emotional exhaustion that may include a negative self-concept and job attitudes, a loss of concern and feeling for others. High levels of compassion fatigue may lead to burnout.

What Secondary Stress Looks Like

Physical Symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Change in appetite
  • Increased drug/alcohol consumption
  • Impaired immune system
  • Low energy
  • Exhaustion
  • Fatigue, aches & pains

 

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Tardiness
  • Absenteeism
  • Absentmindedness
  • Decrease in quality & quantity of work
  • Lower motivation
  • Increased mistakes
  • Poor Judgment

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Diminished concentration
  • Loss of focus
  • Loss of Interest
  • Self-doubt – Decrease in Confidence
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty with decisions
  • Poor Judgment
  • Hyper-vigilance

World-View Symptoms:

(Losing your sense of connection to something bigger than yourself)

  • Overwhelming Feelings of the Unfairness of Life
  • Feeling a Lack of Support from Others
  • Anger at Higher Power
  • Questioning Your Own Beliefs
  • Loss of Sense of Purpose

Interpersonal Symptoms:

(All our relationships can be affected – at home and at school.)

  • Withdrawal from Colleagues and Loved Ones
  • Mistrust
  • Intolerance
  • Feelings of Loneliness
  • Poor Communication leading to Conflicts
  • Decreased quality of relationships

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Irritability and/or Anger
  • Sadness
  • Loss of empathy
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Emotional shutdown

 

Strategies to Reduce Negative Impacts of Secondary Trauma

For yourself:

There are many aspects to self-care including physical, emotional, psychological, professional, personal and spiritual. Click on the Self-care Resource to learn more.

For your organization:

  • Develop a staff wellness committee that’s representative of all levels of leadership in your office
  • Develop and share a staff wellness plan collaboratively with staff
  • Demonstrate leadership level buy in and commitment to self care and emotional wellness
  • Build in time during the work day for staff reflection, mindfulness or brain breaks
  • Create a “peace corner” or safe space for staff to self regulate their emotions and create a sense of calm
  • Teach and coach emotional regulation skills
  • Promote access to emotional and mental health services (through
  • Employee Assistance Program or other resources)
  • Consider shifting “sick “days to “mental wellness” days

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