Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma refers to the changes that occur in people after they listen to the firsthand accounts of traumatic events that others have gone through. The intense pain that they feel for such individuals could cause physical and psychological changes. The following Buzzle write-up provides information on how it affects people.
PsycholoGenie Staff
Professionals who work with and/or assist distressed children, adults, or families, are more likely to develop secondary trauma. Physicians, emergency medical workers, police officers, search and rescue team members, counselors, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, etc., are more likely to suffer from vicarious traumatization. Witnessing the pain and plight of burn victims, rape victims, sexual abuse victims, domestic abuse victims, drug addicts, or people affected by natural disasters, might take an emotional toll on those who assist such people.

Signs and Symptoms
While people in the aforementioned professions are susceptible, others could also get affected on witnessing graphic scenes or the plight of such people. The painful images of the affected people seeking help might become etched in their minds. This happens because one begins to empathize with another person's pain. This doesn't mean that empathizing with someone will always lead to secondary traumatic stress. This condition occurs only when one begins to identify with the pain that others have endured, and this feeling begins to take over their own life. There are certain signs and symptoms that indicate when a person is allowing the pain felt by others to affect his/her life. These include:
  • Feeling extreme anger
  • Deep sadness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of confidence
  • Frequent headaches
  • Problems making decisions
  • Change in eating habits, sleep patterns, and behavior
  • Problems concentrating or remembering things
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Guilt
One begins to feel a sense of hopelessness, rage, and detachment. Affected people may experience a feeling of numbness or hyperarousal (increased psychological and physiological tension). When this stress disorder affects professionals who work with and/or assist such people, it tends to interfere with their professional life. They begin to avoid their clients and distance themselves emotionally from their clients. This is one of the major issue with psychiatrists. The graphic details of the things their clients go through could adversely affect their ability to help their clients.

Attorneys who work with such people, also tend to suffer from this stress disorder. Overwhelmed by the feelings of sympathy, they try to overextend help to such clients. They feel emotionally drained. Secondary trauma must not be confused with burnout. The latter refers to the long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work, whereas the former results from deep empathy.

Why does It Occur
This condition is the cumulative effect of witnessing cruelty, violence, disaster, struggle, abuse, etc. Professionals who work with people in need, tend to get highly involved in their work. They begin to feel responsible to help those in need. It leads to unrealistic expectations from oneself. When they cannot achieve what they want, it causes them to question their self-worth. This has an adverse effect on the psychological, as well as spiritual well-being of a person. At times, people tend to find similarities between their lives and that of the victims. They begin to question the authority of God when faced with natural, as well as man-made mass disasters. They begin to question hope and life.

Ways to Overcome It
If left untreated, this condition can lead to depression or other psychological problems. It can even strain your relationship with family, friends, etc. It can definitely have an adverse effect on your professional life. To address the condition of vicarious traumatization, one needs to acknowledge that one is suffering from it. They should speak to a friend, family member, or a person they can open up to. They can even seek help from therapists or opt for other treatment options to reduce the effects of stress. If you feel you get depressed after reading or listening to news, avoid reading newspapers or watching news on TV. It is important to understand that it is not possible to reach out and help all those who are in need.

It is good to feel the pain of others and reach out to those in need. Yet, it is important to strike a balance, and not let empathy and sympathy take a toll on your own health.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a mental health expert.