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secondary trauma

Where should you start when you want to mitigate the impact of secondary trauma? You may want to immediately go to mindfulness training and self-care techniques. However, first, you need to learn about secondary trauma, risk factors, and symptoms. To fix the problem, you need to understand the problem. Being that the emotional toll of caring can compromise your functioning, this article lays the foundation for your self-care and addresses the following:

  1. Describe secondary trauma following exposure to primary trauma.
  2. Identify professionals at risk for secondary traumatization.
  3. Compare two types of indirect contact with trauma material.
  4. Examine secondary traumatic stress symptoms.

What is Secondary Trauma

Imagine a day when no child suffers from physical abuse, when no teenager lies in an ICU bed after a drug overdose, and no parent grieves their child’s suicide. These experiences, stressful and traumatizing, are considered incidents that bring about primary trauma. As professionals learn of this traumatic material, they can experience secondary trauma. Although the trauma did not happen to them, somehow, they experience the same symptoms as the person who suffered the primary trauma. Secondary trauma symptoms mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Secondary or vicarious trauma can occur immediately following the exposure to another person’s single traumatic event or after several events. It occurs when there is some interaction between the professional and the traumatized person or their traumatic material (e.g., watching a video, reading a document). This is especially challenging when professionals are exposed to these traumatic events daily.

When you experience primary trauma, you experience certain symptoms. Secondary trauma symptoms mirror the other person’s primary trauma symptoms such as high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and avoidance. You may be easily triggered and have racing thoughts.

When secondary trauma symptoms are experienced in the workplace, your functioning decreases due to impaired judgment, low productivity, pushed boundaries, and poorer quality of work. Staff friction can develop. Your working environment suffers due to increased absenteeism and higher staff turnover.

Reflective Question

What secondary trauma symptoms have you experienced?

You may consider yourself empathetic and compassionate. Compassion satisfaction is the feeling of gratification you get from caring. However, you may lose your ability to feel compassionate, and become less satisfied with your level of compassion satisfaction. As you re-experience the other person’s phenomena, you no longer feel clinically competent. Your perceived self-efficacy diminishes as does your level of compassion satisfaction.

Who is at Risk for Secondary Trauma?

Secondary trauma risk factors are those who are younger, female, and have less experience in their job. Exposure to a person’s traumatic material could bring up unresolved issues from your past. If you experienced a prior trauma, and that experience is unresolved, you are at a higher risk for secondary trauma. If you experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or a traumatic death, and have not worked those events through, your job can reactivate that personal experience. Another person’s primary trauma can become a trigger. Being exposed to their trauma material while sharing the same trauma history, can put you at risk.

Forensic nurses, emergency department nurses, oncology nurses, pediatric nurses, and hospice nurses are particularly at risk for secondary trauma. Others at risk include those practitioners who are exposed to traumatized populations in the courts and criminal justice system, such as victim advocates, prosecutors, trial attorneys, judges, probation officers, and court reporters. Therapists who work with children, child welfare workers, and case managers involved in the care of traumatized children are also at risk.

Those who work with traumatized persons and those who indirectly have contact with trauma material are at risk of secondary trauma. Two indirect exposures to trauma material:

  1. Indirect trauma person/person: professionals at risk for secondary trauma work directly with those who experience primary trauma as they listen to or observe traumatized individuals, or –  those in physical pain or psychologically suffering. Those at risk include professionals, such as clinicians, clergy, lawyers, child protective services workers, probation officers, foster parents, shelter staff, police officer, fire fighters, first responders, and teachers.
  2. Indirect trauma person/data: professionals at risk for secondary trauma may read traumatic material in records, documents, files, and letters. Those at risk include a professional who watches videos of a traumatic incident or listens to frightening 911 calls. Those at risk include court coordinators, magistrate support clerk, and victim advocacy administrative staff.

Reflective Question

Based on your job description, what puts you at risk for secondary trauma?

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Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.

Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon -

• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.

• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.

• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.


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