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Secondary trauma

Secondary Traumatic Stress

secondary traumatic stress

The terms secondary trauma and secondary traumatization are interchangeable and refer to the stressful consequence to working with traumatic material. When you are empathetic, you open yourself up and become vulnerable to internalize the traumatized individual’s experience. This is especially the case when workplaces do not offer enough recovery time between emotional cases.

Symptoms you may feel

Arousal symptoms from secondary traumatic stress such as irritability, avoidance, and intrusion can be difficult to manage. You may have a difficult time balancing your role. Having difficulty leaving your job in the workplace, you stay late at work, take work home with them and feel isolated. You may shut down and not talk about what you are going through with family, friends, or coworkers. You experience an inability to empathize and are no longer emotionally connected to those you serve. Your health suffers, especially if you have your own interpersonal trauma history. Aches and pains become a common problem. Furthermore, you can become cynical to manage your intense feelings.

Secondary traumatization

Although another person experienced the primary stress, your body reacts like you were the one who experienced the primary trauma. Secondary traumatization occurs when you are triggered by someone’s trauma material. You experience a physical reaction called the stress response.

Secondary traumatic stress is associated with perceived stress and the amount of time a professional spends with the trauma material. The stress response starts as the brain is triggered and warns the muscles in the body. At that point, adrenal glands release stress hormones, adrenalin, and cortisol, that prepare the body to keep safe, known as the fight or flight response.

Stress response

The stress response helps your mind and body to quickly react to a life-threatening situation by fighting or fleeing. The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism. The heart pounds as blood pressure rises. As blood is sent to muscles and the brain, breath quickens so more oxygen can get into the blood.

You need energy to manage the stressor. Therefore, sugars and fats are released into the blood. Stress hormones produce physiological changes in the body, and you begin to sweat. There is no harm to your body if this only occurs occasionally. However, if you continually navigate trauma material day after day in the workplace, it can become chronic stress.

Reflective Question

If you have ever experienced the stress response, what happened?

Chronic stress is not healthy and can bring about high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, worry, frustration, anxiety, exhaustion. Any emotional distress felt from someone else’s traumatic material (e.g., hearing a traumatic story, seeing the traumatic aftermath, seeing images related to the trauma, talking about the trauma), can impact your overall health, which can cause you to feel detached from others.

Where Do You Go from Here?

When you are emotionally overwhelmed because of the firsthand trauma of another or several difficult cases, seek out support, especially if the condition persists for more than a month. A traumatizing event experienced by one individual can become a traumatizing event for another individual. Therefore, reduce secondary traumatic stress symptoms and general distress by getting educated about protective factors, identifying your strengths, and putting them into practice to meet the demands of your job.

On an organizational level, secondary traumatic stress training should focus on improving a supportive work environment. Leaders, management, and supervisors must recognize the effects of traumatic exposure by training professionals in evidence-based methods of coping with secondary trauma.

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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