Chat with us, powered by LiveChat

Category: PTSD

What is Secondary Trauma?: Signs and Symptoms

Traumatic experiences can leave long-lasting mental health issues. Sharing your story and experiences with others can help you heal. However, if you are helping someone deal with their trauma, you need to be aware of having similar symptoms called secondary trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects not only the person with the disorder, but it can also impact those around them, including caregivers and family members. North Atlanta Behavioral Health is here to help those with PTSD as well as those who develop secondary trauma.

What is Secondary Trauma?

Secondary trauma, also called compassion fatigue, affects people who help others with their traumatic experiences. People in helping professions, like EMTs, social workers, doctors, nurses, and psychotherapists, sometimes develop symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Secondary trauma is the result of hearing about another person’s traumatic experiences. You can also develop secondary trauma from witnessing how these experiences affect another person’s mental health and well-being. As a result, your own mental health suffers, and you could experience burnout if you work in a helping profession or have a loved one who struggles.

How Does Secondary Trauma Differ From Primary Trauma?

Secondary trauma differs from primary trauma because you don’t directly experience the traumatic event. Instead, you hear another person’s story of trauma, which, in turn, affects the way you feel about other people and the world at large. Oftentimes, compassion fatigue results from repeated exposure to the stories and lives of those with PTSD. That is why it is common among those in the helping professions.

Examples of traumatic events that can lead to primary trauma include the following:

  • Near-death experiences, like car crashes or surviving a natural disaster
  • Combat during military service
  • Living in a dangerous neighborhood or war-torn country
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Abuse or neglect during childhood
  • Witnessing acts of violence or horrific accidents

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), approximately “one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.” An important aspect of the healing process is to share the trauma story with others—especially peers and professionals. However, after hearing many people’s stories, professionals must be aware of how these stories could impact their own mental health.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of secondary trauma will help you maintain your own mental well-being so that you can continue to help others.

The Signs and Symptoms of Secondary Trauma

As previously mentioned, the signs and symptoms of secondary trauma or compassion fatigue mimic those of PTSD. This is because, like PTSD, compassion fatigue impacts the way you feel about other people and the world.

For instance, hearing traumatic stories every day could make you feel that the world is unjust. In other words, your perspective can shift from a positive outlook to a negative one. In turn, you might feel hopeless about the harmful events that can happen to other people.

Signs and symptoms of secondary trauma or compassion fatigue include the following:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Apathy or a lack of concern for others
  • Rigid thinking and perfectionism
  • Guilt and anger
  • Sadness
  • Feeling numb
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Hypervigilance and irritability
  • Being easily startled
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol to cope

While these symptoms can be distressing, recognizing them is the first step to getting better. However, if you ignore compassion fatigue, you could develop mental health issues yourself. This can negatively impact your ability to help others who struggle with PTSD.

Can Secondary Trauma Cause a Mental Health Disorder?

Secondary trauma could result in developing mental health issues. For one thing, a common cause of any mental health disorder is an inability to cope with stress. So, if compassion fatigue increases the amount of stress in your life—and you don’t address it—this could lead to a mental health disorder.

If you experience compassion fatigue, you could develop anxiety, depression, or even PTSD yourself. In addition, if you abuse substances to cope with compassion fatigue, you can develop an addiction on top of a mental health disorder. For these reasons, it is vital to seek treatment for secondary trauma.

How is Secondary Trauma Treated?

One important aspect of treating secondary trauma involves lifestyle changes that help you cope with your symptoms and protect yourself from the effects of compassion fatigue. For example, if you work in a high-stress environment like an ER or fire department, you must find a balance between your work and personal life. This means finding meaningful activities and healthy relationships to focus on during your time off of work.

Additionally, it helps to find coping skills for on-the-job stress. This can include some of the following:

  • Peer support groups with others in the helping professions
  • Relaxation techniques like meditation or mindful breathing
  • Learning to take a break or get help from a co-worker when overwhelmed
  • Setting limits with your job to maintain a healthy work/life balance
  • Recognizing times when you experience success on the job

Despite engaging in self-care activities like those listed above, you might still feel overwhelmed and distressed. In that case, professional mental health treatment programs can help you manage symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Treatment for secondary trauma can be similar to PTSD treatment and include the following:

  • Psychiatry services to treat symptoms with medications
  • Brainspotting, a specialized form of therapy for treating trauma
  • Holistic approaches that help you focus on all aspects of your health and well-being
  • Group and individual therapy sessions can help you develop coping skills for stress and trauma

Secondary trauma can be distressing for those in the helping professions or for the loved ones of those with PTSD. However, self-care and trauma treatment programs can help you build the skills that you need to regain a healthy sense of mental well-being.

Get Help for Secondary Trauma Today

Secondary trauma can mimic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That is why it’s important for family members and professionals exposed to stories of trauma from others to maintain their own mental well-being. Otherwise, they could get compassion fatigue and feel burnout from trying to help those they care about.

North Atlanta Behavioral Health is here to help those with compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. Contact us today to begin treatment.

Read More