Secondary Trauma & Vicarious Trauma

By the teenage years, many of us were familiar with the question “Where were you when….?”

Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?

Where were you when The Challenger exploded?

Where were you when Columbine happened?

Where were you when the Oklahoma Bomb exploded?

Where were you on 9/11?

Right now, in the wake of an insurmountable number of school shootings, during the current and ongoing crisis of Hurricane Florence, and in the midst of the information age, it seems that almost weekly, more disasters and tragedies are occurring for the world to see and wonder “will I remember where I was when this happened?”. 

While these tragedies and unthinkable acts directly affect many people, they indirectly affect us all (though on different levels).  Those of us who are indirectly affected by these events (meaning, we were not there nor were we in general vicinity, so our safety was not directly jeopardized) process these things on a spectrum of resiliency.  

Human beings, by nature, tend to be compassionate creatures.  When someone else hurts, we sometimes hurt for them as we put ourselves in their shoes.  During the age of internet and social-media, we find ourselves more often witnessing traumatic events of others at a more rapid pace than ever before. Whereas prior to the information age, terms like “secondary traumatic stress” and “vicarious trauma” were reserved more for those in the trauma fields (i.e. Mental Health Professionals), right now we are seeing an influx of individuals who are presenting traumatic symptoms who have not been directly affected by traumatic events… they simply have seen these events on the news and on social media.

So, what are Secondary and Vicarious Traumas?  Essentially, when a person who was not directly involved in a trauma experiences traumatic symptoms due to their heightened compassion for those who were directly impacted.

Secondary Traumatic Stress is when a person experiences traumatic symptoms suddenly after hearing about a traumatic experience of another person or other people. Whereas in the past, this person may have been able to put the tragic news of the day in its place, something about the triggering event sparked their brain to operate in the fight, flight, or flee response system.  In essence, a person who is experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress has internalized the trauma of another person.

Vicarious Traumatic Stress, similarly puts an individual who is not directly impacted by traumatic events into a place where they have begun to internalize other individuals’ traumas.  However, this does not happen suddenly, as with Secondary Trauma, but more, over time.  After hearing about trauma after trauma, eventually an individual begins to transform gradually as they may be called to (and feel responsible to) to help those who are suffering.  

While the onset of each type of stressor is different (one sudden, one gradual), they share symptoms, care options, and preventative plans.

Symptoms Include

  • Difficulty talking about feelings
  • Disruption in Sleep
  • Change in Eating Patterns
  • Inability to stop thinking about the event(s)
  • Losing sleep due to thinking about the event(s)
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Loss of enjoyment in otherwise enjoyable things
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained Anger
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Loss of motivation toward goals
  • Decreased Personal Satisfaction

Care Options are similar to other mental health diagnoses like adjustment disorder, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.  

  • Put yourself first: give yourself permission to take time for yourself (at least a half an hour daily)
  • Challenge your racing thoughts: when you find yourself to “not be doing enough to help”, remind yourself that you are only one person and you can only do what you can do.  In other words, help where you can but give yourself some grace and don’t be afraid to put yourself first… you can’t fill someone’s cup with an empty pot. 
  • Exercise: do not underestimate the power of physical activity on the brain.  You don’t have to run a marathon… it can be as simple as stretching or walking down the street and back.  Just move (your serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels will thank you).
  • Eat healthy: no… I’m not saying to change your entire lifestyle to some fad-type super diet.  Just incorporate some added healthy foods to your day. If don’t eat a balanced diet daily, just add something to it bit by bit  (it may evolve into something more balanced but add a banana to your fast food to start… it’s a step forward).
  • Talk to a friend: As long as you fight against the urge to not talk, that’s helpful.  
  • Talk to a professional: If you’re still feeling stuck, see someone who is skilled in helping people through this while validating that your emotions surrounding a trauma you weren’t directly impacted by are real (and that you’re not over-reacting).
  • Turn off the news (and news feed) and STOP GOOGLING the event: in order for our brains to start to heal from trauma, we have to be able to detach from it (at least for the time being). Trauma symptoms are like a forest fire… it starts with a spark and spreads and it difficult to contain).  We wouldn’t advise the fire department to keep lighting matches and we don’t advise our friends, family, and clients with trauma to keep sparking the triggering events in their brains. This does not make you any less compassionate… it just makes you able to care for yourself so if the situation arises for you to be able to help out, you are able to do so. 
  • Meditate: For real, it helps… like, a lot. A lot a lot. You don’t have to “om” to meditate.  You can do something as simple as think of a song and focus on the notes, the words, the volume, etc… and when your mind wanders, bring it back. You can count by 3’s (or if you’re mathematically inclined, by 12’s or 7’s or 23’s).  The key with meditation is to simply catch your wandering thoughts and bring it back to what you are choosing to be focused on.  

Prevention Options: The best information on prevention I’ve been given is to always participate in self-care and to limit your willing exposure to traumatic events.  This is especially true for those who are predisposed to traumatic symptoms as well as for those who may not have the capacity to adequately process these types of events (i.e. kids & teens and those with developmental and cognitive disabilities).  If you have someone in your household that might be more at risk for developing traumatic symptoms, turn off the news, watch your discussions, answer questions honestly but developmentally appropriately, and be there to listen (without judgement) if they end up experiencing these symptoms.

In short, as with any type of self-care, it starts with self.  It is not selfish to attend to your needs first, it is healthy. Sometimes people are able to attend to themselves with their small tribe of people, other times, it might be helpful to include a professional.  Do what is right for you and the rest will start to fall into place.