Secondary Trauma: What It is and How to Recognize It

What is Secondary Trauma?

Trauma is defined in the DSM-5, as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation either (1) directly, (2) as a witness, (3) learning of violence to a loved one or (4) through repeated exposure to details of the trauma. 

Secondary Trauma is a phenomenon that can impact someone who is exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories indirectly. Secondary exposure to trauma can be, but not limited to, learning about violence to a loved one, or repeated, extreme exposure. It is believed to develop within professionals, friends and families of people who have undergone traumatizing events that have led to mental, physical or emotional suffering. Details concerning extreme exposure reference first responders and other professions that interact with intense exposure to traumatic happenings.

The effects of secondary trauma are apparent in professionals that work with children that endure trauma. It is the job of social workers, teachers and therapists to help children recover from traumatic situations; however, with over 10 million children enduring what the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has called “the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events,” there are bound to be effects. These effects include a toll on professional functionality, quality of life and functionality of coping mechanisms. Secondary trauma demonstrates the repercussions of mental distress.

How to Recognize it and What to Do About it

Typically, people that are at risk for secondary trauma are aware of the risks of their profession. These professions include but are not limited to: psychotherapists, nurses, teachers, suicide hotline staff, social workers, firefighters, journalists, physicians, judges and veterans. However, the risk for secondary trauma is not limited to professionals, but is a potential outcome for family members or friends who support, assist or work with distressed children, adults, family members or friends.

Recognizing secondary trauma can be difficult due to most symptoms being internal. Symptoms noticeable by others include detachment, absenteeism, poor concentration, anger, fatigue and physical illness. Internal symptoms include intrusive thoughts, sadness, second-guessing, emotional exhaustion, fearfulness and shame. These symptoms can be detrimental to a person’s well-being and create detrimental repercussions for one’s mental health

However, one can take steps to prevent secondary trauma through training seminars and stress reduction sessions. In the training seminars, participants are taught therapeutic interventions to explore the impact of secondary trauma on themselves and others around them. Trauma and stress-reduction sessions allow participants to work through their trauma and stress through interactive recognition exercises. Participants are also provided with tools, insights, and strategies on how to better equip themselves to process the intense trauma and stress endured in their daily life.