Signs of Secondhand Trauma Exposure
Secondhand trauma is often seen as insignificant. Secondhand trauma is an indirect connection to a traumatic event. It’s the exposure to someone else’s experience causing a stress reaction.
According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), “secondhand, or vicarious, trauma is a condition that affects many people who interact with those who have experienced a traumatic event.”
Examples of Secondhand TraumaCurrently, our news and media platforms are bombarded with constant shocking and overwhelming reports of negative, life-changing events. There are reports of shootings, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and violent deaths.
There are also events that are observed by the surrounding onlookers and through the response of first responders who are the first to arrive at a scene: sexual/physical assaults, child abuse/neglect, natural disasters, and car accidents. There are professionals who are impacted regularly by secondhand trauma.
Visualize your “day at the office” being filled with overwhelming and gruesome events. Imagine your day being filled with sad story after sad story. Imagine being the first person to arrive on the scene of a child who saw their mother overdose on drugs. Picture being the first person to arrive at the scene of a horrific accident where the person was taking their last breath.
Envision being the first person to hear the horrific details from a rape victim who, after hours of trying to make them feel safe, shared what they went through. Erich Fromm said, “One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often.”
There are many professions that can be deeply impacted by secondhand trauma:
First Responders: EMTs/paramedics, police officers, and firefighters are often the first to respond to traumatic events. They ask questions, collect details, and try to make the victim feel safe. They are exposed, day after day, to heartbreaking images, sounds, and details of the trauma. They can easily experience secondhand trauma and PTSD from the selfless work that they do.
Medical Personnel: Nurses and physicians treat trauma survivors on a day-by-day basis. They must collect information and details to effectively treat their patients. They check on and analyze both the physical and emotional effects of the traumatic event. They can feel and picture the effects of trauma and easily experience burnout from the heroic work that they do.
Child Protection Workers: It is often advertised that the system is flawed, but at the heart of the system are selfless individuals who hear intricate and overwhelming details of what children have endured and try to find a better situation for their well-being and future. They are overwhelmed because they desperately long for each child to be safe, loved, and valued.
Child/Spouse of Traumatized Parents: Imagine being the child of a traumatized parent who endured a terrible tragedy, whether it be an assault, car accident, or childhood trauma that left lingering scars. The parent’s lingering emotional pain can also affect the child.
Secondhand trauma can be disturbing and overwhelming for the person experiencing it. While they might not have directly experienced the traumatic event, they might feel like they are placed in that moment or experiencing the event based on helping someone, seeing footage of the event, or listening to details. The repeated exposure can sometimes be overwhelming and life-changing.
Signs of Secondhand Trauma Exposure
- Loss of joy in creating and doing things they usually enjoy
- Desire to numb their pain
- Sense of persecution
- Inability to empathize
- Poor coping attempts (drugs, alcohol)
There are other potential outcomes for those experiencing secondary trauma:
- Compassion Fatigue can happen when an individual experiences overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion, which can eventually impact their empathy and compassion.
- Burnout can be a response to long-term work in the trauma field and result in extreme exhaustion, lack of coping skills, and negatively impacts emotions, drive, and work performance.
If you work in the helping field or know someone who works in the helping field, here are a few steps to consider:
- Take time to decompress. In an occupation or situation where you are constantly helping others, it is important to take time to decompress. Take a bath. Journal. Eat a healthy meal. Spend time in prayer. Go on a run. Take in the sights and sounds of nature. Rest and try to get enough sleep. The body and mind work hand-in-hand and need to be cared for simultaneously to process events.
- Take advantage of peer discussions following a traumatic event. It is helpful to talk through secondary trauma with peers following a traumatic event because you walked in those shoes together. You observed the details. You heard the pain-filled screams. It is helpful to engage with like-minded individuals and offer support to one another.
- Stay connected. When we experience overwhelming situations, our response is to try and numb our feelings and retreat from the people we love most because they sense something is off. To stay emotionally healthy, do not flee. Do not refuse to feel. Allow yourself time to feel and confide in your family so they can offer support rather than feel shut out by withdrawal tendencies.
- Reframe negative thoughts. While it is easy to dwell on the one thing that went wrong out of ten other things, try to focus on the things that went right. In the helping field, it can be overwhelming to imagine the X, Y, & Z scenarios that you could have done. Do not solely focus on the people you feel that you could not sufficiently help. Focus and thank the Lord for the many that you have helped and continue to help.
- Give yourself some grace. We are offered God’s grace on a daily basis, and it is essential that you provide it to yourself, too. Give yourself permission to cry, scream into a pillow, or go for a run to physically decompress. Do not bottle up your emotions and feelings. If you bottle them up, eventually they will spew out, and they might not be so pretty. Give yourself permission to feel.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to admit to your spouse or co-workers that you are struggling. Do not be afraid to ask for prayer and emotional support. Do not be afraid to take a day off from time to time to care for yourself – mentally, physically, and emotionally. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness – it means you are human.
If you are regularly exposed to or have been exposed to secondhand trauma and are having trouble coping with the sights and sounds, Christian counseling is available to help you through your journey. If you work in the helping field, consider routine counseling appointments to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue. Helpers need helping, too.
Scriptures on Hope and Healing
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. – Psalm 71:5, ESV
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. – Psalm 43:5, ESV
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and He saved them from their distress. He sent out His word and healed them; He rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the LORD for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind. – Psalm 107:19-21, NIV
You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. – Psalm 119:114, ESV
But [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5, NIV
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. – Revelation 21:4, NIV
“Silhouette”, Courtesy of William Farlow, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Touching the Light”, Courtesy of Elia Pellegrini, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Light Through A Tree”, Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Catching a Feather”, Courtesy of Javardh, Unsplash.com, CC0 License