Primary trauma is the trauma you likely think of when you hear the word. It is emotional stress that comes about when a person experiences, witnesses, or confronts a traumatic event. It happened to you. You were there.
Secondary trauma is the emotional stress that happens when someone hears about the trauma someone else went through. Sometimes defined as vicarious trauma as it occurs when one is indirectly exposed to the trauma of someone else. It didn’t directly happen to you. You weren’t there.
Example: I live in Orlando and have been fortunate in that I have been able to speak with first responders, counselors, psychotherapists, peer support, etc about the secondary trauma they experienced regarding the aftermath of June 12, 2016. It is intense to listen to these horrific first-hand accounts of the massacre every day for weeks and months at a time.
You might be thinking “yeah, their story is awful, but I wasn’t affected by it.”
Well, not exactly. The brain is unable to distinguish between primary trauma and secondary trauma. That is, you can be impacted the exact same way the person who experienced it was. Your brain doesn’t know, so it will react the same way it would if it were you.
So, who is at the most risk of experiencing secondary trauma? (this list is not mine and is not in order of severity)
- Psychotherapist/counselors (no surprise there)
- Hospice workers
- Foster parents
- Suicide hotline staff
- Child welfare workers
- Social workers
- Prison guards
Anyone who works with traumatized children, adults, or families are on this list.
Why? If you work in one of these professions, I’m sure you already know.
For those that don’t, much of these jobs involve hearing stories and assisting those who have been through trauma day in and day out. The obvious ones like EMTs, firefighters, nurses, physicians, psychotherapists, veterans are easiest to understand when thinking about secondary trauma.
The others on the list like journalists, teachers, social workers, etc are less obvious and, I hope, more rare. These people are still hearing and retelling the stories of children, families, etc. often.
No matter how long you’ve been in the field and how much training you’ve had, you are still susceptible to secondary trauma. Nobody can help how their brain reacts to these gut-wrenching experiences of others and it in no way reflects your competence as a professional. We are human, and we have some of the biggest hearts you’ll find.
Cat’s out of the bag! people working these jobs are not super-human. How does one know when they’re experiencing secondary trauma, though?
Symptoms of primary and secondary trauma are often one in the same. Makes sense since the brain doesn’t know the difference, right? (list is not mine)
- chronic fatigue
- hard to “turn off” brain at night
- trouble sleeping
- poor concentration
- negative self-talk
- second guessing
- emotional exhaustion
- absenteeism (from work or other)
- physical illness
One symptom in particular that I would like to put emphasis on is physical illness. As many of us know, stress can manifest in different ways and is often physically not feeling well. When you ignore your less bothersome symptoms, your body wants to make sure you get the message that you need to step back and chill out. Common physical illnesses not listed are migraines and heart attack.
Now, what does one do if they are experiencing secondary trauma?
Self-care. Studies show that the hippocampus increases in volume once the symptoms are addressed. Get enough sleep, eat balanced and well, engage in your hobbies or something you enjoy regularly. Those of us in helping professions know before you can properly take care of someone else, you need to take care of yourself. One cannot pour from an empty vessel.
Suggestions to bulk up your self-care include (again, not mine):
- strengthening your support system
- have “nothing” days
- physical touch (hugs- doesn’t have to be XXX rated, but you do you boo)
- journal your experiences
- meditation and worship can center an individual
- spending time in nature
This post is not meant for you to shush your friends when they open up to you about their experiences. It is meant to shed light on something you might not be aware of, as all of my posts are.
You might not feel like you have the right to “only” be impacted by a story, but it is a very real physiological response that you can have and one you should address if you need to.
Comment your thoughts down below and happy Tuesday!
Here is my previous article about the neurobiology of trauma.