Secondary Trauma: Symptoms, Causes, & More | Banyan Mental Health
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Secondary Trauma: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment


Many people experience trauma that leaves behind a severe psychological scar. Although some people manage to heal soon after enduring events like natural disasters, the death of a loved one, a near-death experience, or sexual assault, others are unable to move on and instead develop a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD is most often associated with the lingering effects of trauma, there’s another condition known as secondary trauma that could occur to people who don’t experience these things directly.

What Is Secondary Trauma?

Otherwise known as compassion fatigue, second-hand PTSD, and secondary traumatic stress disorder, secondary trauma refers to a form of distress or trauma that’s experienced indirectly by hearing details of or witnessing the aftermath of a traumatic experience by another person. The term secondary traumatic stress disorder was a concept developed by trauma specialists Beth Stamm, Charles Figley, and others in the early 1990s to better understand and explain why service providers exhibited symptoms of PTSD without having experienced trauma first-hand.

Secondary trauma is especially common among various professionals who work with people who have experienced trauma, including physicians, psychotherapists, human service workers, and first responders. Moreover, the terms vicarious traumatization and secondary traumatic stress are often used interchangeably.

Vicarious trauma is the process of change that results from frequent exposure to or engagement with trauma survivors. In other words, a person who interacts with survivors of traumatic experiences – such as doctors or first responders – may experience a significant change in their morals and beliefs because of listening to trauma survivors’ stories.

Common causes of secondary traumatic stress disorder include exposure to details of other traumatic events experienced by others, such as:

  • Sexual assault
  • Physical assault
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Natural disasters (e.g., flood, hurricane, tornado)
  • Terrorist attack
  • Torture
  • A violent or gruesome death
  • Near-death experience
  • Combat or war atrocities

Primary vs. Secondary Trauma

Direct or primary trauma refers to a traumatic event that occurs directly to the individual. For instance, a paramedic may experience direct trauma after he’s called to a horrific car accident. The person in the car crash may also experience direct trauma because of the incident.

On the other hand, secondary trauma is indirect exposure to trauma and often occurs in professionals who work in high-stress or trauma-exposed fields, including child abuse investigators, prosecutors, judges, therapists, health care professionals, first responders, and others. Secondary trauma can also occur in civilians or people who do not have high-trauma careers but are deeply impacted by stories they’re exposed to, such as watching graphic news accounts or listening to their friend’s story of a traumatic experience.

Secondary Trauma Symptoms & Signs

People with secondary traumatic stress may experience symptoms like those of PTSD, sometimes to the point where the individual is diagnosed with PTSD. However, while secondary trauma symptoms are like PTSD symptoms, the average person may only experience one of the latter.

With that said, common secondary traumatic stress disorder symptoms include:

  • Unwanted and painful memories of the event/story
  • Dreams or flashbacks of the event/story
  • Avoidance of things that remind you of the traumatic event/story
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Frequent emotional outbursts
  • Engaging in self-destructive and reckless behavior (such as substance abuse)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep problems
  • Easily startled or jumpy

A person with secondary traumatic stress disorder may also experience changes in areas like their sense of safety, their ability to trust others, their self-esteem, their intimacy, and their self-control as a result of vicarious trauma. Compassion fatigue is also a consequence of secondary trauma and is characterized by physical and mental exhaustion and loss of empathy for others.

Compassion fatigue occurs as a result of the ongoing demands of being compassionate and helpful to others who are suffering, which brings us to burnout. Burnout refers to the emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged work-related stress (and not just exposure to secondary trauma.)

A person with burnout may feel mentally and physically drained, become irritable, and develop negative attitudes towards their clients/patients. Considering the mental stress that this can cause and the impact it can have on a professional’s ability to carry out their tasks properly, having a solid grasp on what secondary traumatic stress is, becomes necessary. It helps when offering professionals, who are frequently exposed to trauma victims, the PTSD treatment they need, as well.

Secondary PTSD Treatment

Whether you’re suffering from PTSD or secondary trauma, our residential mental health program in Boca offers round-the-clock care and support to aid in your recovery. Our mental health specialists utilize a variety of evidence-based modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and biofeedback to teach patients how to manage their symptoms on their own.

Our goal is not only to help patients recover from their current stressors but also to educate them about their conditions and teach them how to sustain a happy and healthy lifestyle on their own. However, we also understand the value of a strong support system. In the same fashion as the old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” we offer family therapy for the parents, spouses, siblings, and close loved ones of our clients to help them heal, as well.

For more information about our inpatient and PHP mental health program, call Banyan Treatment Centers at 888-280-4763.

Related Reading:

The Stages of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Alyssa is Banyan’s Director of Digital Marketing & Technology. After overcoming her own struggles with addiction, she began working in the treatment field in 2012. She graduated from Palm Beach State College in 2016 with additional education in Salesforce University programs. A part of the Banyan team since 2016, Alyssa brings over 5 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.

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