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Can Family & Friends Suffer from Secondary Trauma?

by Ashly Ash, Board Emeritus 

Secondary traumatic stress is a risk when we support and engage wholeheartedly with a trauma survivor. More recently, secondary traumatic stress has come to the front as an issue separate from burnout, and it should be addressed.

While burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations, secondary trauma often occurs when there is the interaction between the supporter and survivor, and the supporter becomes traumatized. Secondary traumatic stress is often used interchangeably or referred to as "vicarious trauma."

There are many indicators of secondary traumatic stress including but not limited to anger, sadness, prolonged grief, anxiety, depression, headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, constipation, cynicism, mood swings, isolationism, avoidance, and lack of motivation.

If you are supporting a survivor of severe trauma and feel a number of these symptoms, confirm your suspicion of secondary traumatic stress, we urge you to check in with your own needs and make self-care a priority.

Leaving secondary traumatic stress undealt with can bring an entourage of other problems both physically and psychologically. It is important to take care of yourself when you are supporting a survivor of trauma or trauma-based mind control. Remember the childhood song, “I’m a little Teapot”? Well, your teapot must be full before you can sing “tip me over and pour me out!”

Steps to Take....Mentally

Take time or schedule time daily to process, self-reflect, journal, read unrelated books or practice a hobby, spend time with friends/family/support network, talk to someone about the stress you are under and find things that make you laugh.

Steps to Take....Physically

Eat healthily and regularly exercise. Don’t put your physical health on the back burner because it will impact your mental wellbeing and window of tolerance. If you can set aside a specific time to “disconnect” and rest, check-in with yourself and see what it is your body needs including but not limited to sleep and nutrition.

Steps to Take....with Your Lifestyle

Take breaks throughout the day, make quiet time to complete tasks, set limits on the number of intense emotional contacts you support, and learn to say “no” when you need to. Boundaries are not designed to keep others out of our lives, they are designed to keep us contained and not run all over like Jell-O.

Find more resources for helping a loved one.

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