Today we want to explore a very important topic for anyone who works with children: secondary trauma. But before we dig into it, let’s first talk a bit about trauma.

Trauma is the physiological and psychological impact that happens when we are unequipped to cope with an event. When experiences exceed the resources we have to deal with them, trauma can develop. Trauma affects the brain and the body, and symptoms can vary, from small to large, from short-term to long-term, and everything in between.

When we think of trauma, we often picture the traumatic events than can cause it: abuse, natural disasters, violence, and more. However, research also shows that a person does not even need to experience the traumatic event to experience trauma. This is what is known as secondary trauma.

What is secondary trauma? 

Secondary trauma is the emotional distress that can result when an individual hears about a traumatic experience or event of another person. Secondary trauma is possible when we hear about, listen to or observe experiences that are creating trauma for someone else. You don’t necessarily have to experience the trauma yourself, but understanding another person’s trauma can begin to become traumatic.

What can cause secondary trauma?

There are many different ways that a person can experience secondary trauma, but let’s take a look at three specific examples.

1. Through Your Work

Experiencing secondary trauma through your work happens when you are repeatedly hearing about the trauma of others at your job. Therapists, social workers and teachers are examples of groups that are exposed to this kind of trauma at work. For instance, teachers often feel enormous compassion for their students and can even begin to care for students as if they are part of their own family. Hearing about and knowing that their students are facing adverse experiences such as domestic abuse, neglect, or food insecurity can cause secondary trauma. People with a larger caseload, such as a high number of students in the classroom, are more vulnerable to secondary trauma.

2. Media consumption

The 24-hour news cycle is a near constant stream of information. The news is also in our social media threads and a click away on our phones. Every day, we see things happening in our communities, country and the world that either directly or indirectly affect our lives. We also see how traumatic events affect the people that experience them and, in many cases, the country. We learn about victims and heroes, and suddenly we feel connected to people we’ve never met before. Absorbing all of this information about all of the events happening in the world can cause trauma. For example, reading about the growing list of people who have died from Covid-19 can be traumatic, even if you have no personal connection to anyone who has died from it.

3. What is happening in your community

We each have our own community that consists of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Within that community, people we care about experience trauma. Hearing about the trauma someone in your community experiences can be particularly hard to process because it hits so close to home. These are people you love and care about, and hearing about their experiences can be very personal. An example of this might be a serious medical diagnosis for a friend’s parent. Even if you do not know the person receiving the diagnosis, hearing about it from your friend and supporting them through a difficult journey can cause secondary trauma for you.

What does secondary trauma look like?

Common symptoms of secondary trauma include:

  • Anxiety
  • Concerns about safety
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional distress
  • Numbness
  • Sense of detachment from others
  • Powerlessness or hopelessness
  • Anger
  • Diminished concentration
  • Desire to withdraw from other people
So what can we do about it?

Secondary trauma is tricky because you can’t simply ignore the stories of trauma or shut off that part of your brain as soon as you leave the encounter with the other person. In order to manage secondary trauma, you don’t have to remove yourself entirely from the environment in which you’re hearing traumatic stories. Rather, it will be important to notice, prevent and intervene.

1. Notice

Check in with yourself – keep a journal, join a self-care group or find an accountability partner to help you stay honest about how you’re feeling and how you’re handling the trauma you’re hearing about.

2. Prevent

Proper sleep, nutrition and exercise are important to manage the stress of daily life and work. Consider setting ten minutes of “me time” every day – and put it in your calendar. Even if your “me time” involves sitting on the couch with no distractions, that counts. Take time every day to be present with yourself.

3. Intervene

Stress-reduction and self-care strategies can go a long way. You may also want to seek the support of a professional counselor or therapist.

It is important to pay attention to your own emotional state. The more you know, the more it may weigh on you. But remember, you can’t give what you don’t have. So take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.

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