What Is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

When analyzing trauma on a complete, holistic level, and understanding how it can affect any particular person in a variety of ways, an often overlooked and undiscussed form is secondary traumatic stress

Also known as vicarious trauma, second hand trauma, PTSD by proxy, and secondary PTSD, Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STS) has been especially prevalent in today’s landscape. Instances like national tragedies, school shootings and the COVID pandemic have catalyzed a countless number of recent cases, making this disorder an important part in the grand scheme of national, mental health. As the awareness for mental health continues to trend through social media, many therapists, social workers, and healthcare providers must now take action to understand the signs and necessary treatment protocols to combat the devastating effects it can have.

What is Secondary Trauma?

Defined by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another”, Secondary Traumatic Stress presents very real and very prevalent symptoms often associated with PTSD. The difference is that STS is brought on by indirect exposure to events that are usually experienced through loved ones, media stories and images, or any close connection to a person’s life. Though many symptoms may be short-term in early stages, studies have shown that they can often manifest into secondary PTSD shortly after. The ambiguous nature of how these symptoms manifest makes the understanding and diagnosing of STS that much more important.

Who Can Secondary Traumatic Stress Affect?

Secondary Traumatic Stress has been commonly linked to children in recent years, but it can very much affect adults in the same realm. Often, children are the most vulnerable, as they commonly lack the skills to properly process emotions at an early age, but STS can affect a wide range of people. Those with pre-existing mental health conditions, or an insufficient support system, can be affected more easily than others, and certain careers, such as 911 dispatchers, can increase your susceptibility. Therapists and mental health workers can also experience STS while helping clients, particularly those who have struggled with increased trauma themselves, such as children or veterans. Even those who watch a greater amount of news coverage can experience symptoms.

What is Secondary Trauma Infographic

Secondary Trauma Symptoms

Knowing the many warning signs and  secondary trauma symptoms is vital in properly diagnosing and treating secondary PTSD. Some of the major symptoms include:

  • Sleep problems and nightmares
  • Feelings of inadequacy, and frequent rumination on trauma suffered by others
  • Increased anxiety and mental stress
  • Depression and behavioral changes, including increased anger and cynicism
  • Fatigue and restlessness
  • Uncontrollable fear and guilt 
  • Inability to listen and avoidance of help

How to Prevent Secondary Trauma

There are many ways to prevent STS, or at least manage the disorder if it has already occured. Being aware of symptoms within yourself can lead to a better understanding of others who are struggling, and planning ahead with your own mental health can be extremely beneficial in the prevention of secondary traumatic stress. Be open to discussion, and avoid pushing away persisting problems. Know what solutions work best for you. This can include things such as:

  • Engaging in physical activity to alleviate the mind
  • Connecting with friends and family, while keeping an open mind to discussion
  • Channeling emotions into other, more satisfactory endeavors, like creative goals and passions
  • Taking time away from work of any kind
  • Meditating and other spiritual mediums to clear mental fog and duress

Retreat Behavioral Health

If you or someone you know may be experiencing symptoms of STS in any capacity, the best course is to tackle the issue at hand and find an appropriate answer. Don’t wait for change in the wake of unsettling thoughts. Expressing your emotions confidently can provide the solutions that are necessary to grow and recover. 

Retreat Behavioral Health has been providing quality care for mental health and substance misuse, ensuring that patients receive the highest quality treatment in a safe and comfortable setting. Our treatment centers are designed to offer patients truly personalized and comprehensive programs tailored to their needs. Feel free to contact us for any questions or concerns, or to schedule a consultation today.