Secondary Trauma: Recognizing and Managing Symptoms
Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. It’s trauma that is indirectly experienced by hearing details or witnessing the aftermath of a traumatic event experienced by another person. The act of listening to someone’s story or seeing the effects of trauma may take an emotional toll that compromises your everyday functioning and quality of life.
Secondary Trauma is also known as compassion fatigue, second-hand PTSD, or vicarious trauma. A lot of people who experience this type of stress work in the service of others, such as social workers, medical workers, therapists, or public defenders. STS was a concept developed by trauma specialists Beth Stamm and Charles Figley in the early 1990’s to better understand why service providers showed signs of PTSD without having experienced trauma firsthand.
Common causes of Secondary Traumatic Stress include hearing details about or seeing the aftermath of others’ experiences with:
- Sexual Assault
- Physical Assault
- Child abuse or neglect
- Motor vehicle accident
- Natural disasters
- Terrorist attack
- A violent or gruesome death
- Near-death experience
- Combat or war atrocities
When STS is extreme, a person may be diagnosed with PTSD. However, it is possible that the average person experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress may only exhibit one of the following STS symptoms:
- Unwanted and painful memories of the event/story
- Dreams or flashbacks of the story
- Avoidance of things that remind you of the story
- Mood swings
- Frequent emotional outbursts
- Self-destructive or reckless behavior (such as substance abuse)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep problems
- Easily startled or jumpy
Understanding STS can be a start to improving your resiliency and finding solutions that work for you on an individual level. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms due to what you feel might be Secondary Traumatic Stress, you could benefit from practicing some self-care. Things that are found most helpful for people managing STS are exercising and eating healthy, staying connected to friends and family, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and engaging in positive activities you find enjoyable. Things like this help to combat the negative effects of Secondary Traumatic Stress, whether that be through improving your quality of sleep, or diminishing reckless behavior.
You might be saying to yourself that STS isn’t a big deal. You didn’t experience the trauma, so hearing about it from someone who did won’t affect you. That’s simply not true. Secondary Traumatic Stress is an actual disorder and affects people every day. The more you can recognize situations in which you could be affected, and the symptoms you may have because of that, the more you will be empowered to deal with them and manage them in a healthy and positive way.
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