By Melissa Porrey, MA, LPC, NCC

Consider the following scenarios:

A car crash unfolds before your eyes. You feel lucky to not have been involved, but you see injured passengers being hauled off in ambulances and smoke and metal scattered all around you. Days pass, but you have flashbacks that come and go frequently, immediately bringing you back to this moment and causing you to re-experience that awful day.

You work as a nurse in the emergency department. Every day, hour after hour, patients come rushing through the hospital doors. Some are children, some are adults, some are hysterical, and others are within inches of their lives. You push emotions aside to do your job, tending to people’s needs as they unfold. But, when you go home at night, you are haunted by the experiences of the people you treated. You have difficulty sleeping, and you avoid going out.

You are a parent who finds out that your daughter was raped at college. She recounted the details to you, and you offer support as best you can. Cognitively, you know that you were not attacked or injured, but you are experiencing flashbacks, physical reactions, and nightmares just the same.

In each of these situations, the person has been secondarily traumatized.

For those who have directly experienced a trauma, traumatic stress is often the natural response. When facing a near-death situation, it can be expected that our mind, body, and spirit will be affected as the fog begins to clear and recovery is attempted.

But, what about those who are one step removed? They might hear about a trauma, see an image or video displaying details of a horrific event, or be faced with others’ traumas every day as a professional caregiver.

There are many people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms even if an actual threat to life was never real. This type of reaction is called secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma. Secondary trauma is often talked about in the helping profession as a kind of job risk that comes with working with victims of trauma. Yet, families and those close to trauma victims are also at risk of developing traumatic stress symptoms.

Although secondary traumatic stress symptoms often look no different from the PTSD symptoms of someone who has directly experienced the trauma, these reactions are not often discussed, leaving the person to feel confused and isolated. Symptoms of secondary trauma can include nightmares, hypervigilance, fear, irritability, flashbacks (either of the actual event or of a pieced together version based on known or imagined information), and more.

The risks of untreated secondary trauma are just as serious as those of untreated PTSD. In the helping professional, this could lead to burnout and inability to perform the job.

How do you know if you are experiencing secondary trauma or are just expressing empathy for the victim? Secondary trauma is disruptive to one’s ability to function. Caring for a trauma victim can be exhausting, maddening, upsetting, and frustrating, but it should not cause you to no longer go out alone. It might break your heart, but it should not cause you to isolate yourself or avoid social situations. It might even be frightening, but it should not keep you up at night.

It is okay, however, to become more cautious after being exposed to trauma. Locking your door at night, being vigilant when walking through parking lots, and staying focused while driving are precautions that could keep you safer. No longer living your life or enjoying the things you used to may be signs that help is needed.

In a world that is more closely connected than ever by fast access to news and unfolding situations through social media, our risk of secondary trauma increases. Images of war, terrorist attacks, torture, and violence expose us to a constant level of trauma that sets the foundation for us to more easily develop PTSD. Add in personal tragedies, and we further increase our risk of developing symptoms.

It is more important than ever to pay attention to our reactions when a traumatic event occurs, either directly or indirectly. Trauma—and secondary trauma—can be treated. Left alone, traumatic reactions can continue to build and create more vulnerabilities and increased trigger responses over time.

People often tell me that they feel guilty for their traumatic reactions when they were not the person who experienced the tragedy. Trauma responses are biological and natural, and they serve a purpose in keeping us alive in the face of danger. Our bodies cannot tell if we are facing danger directly, or if we are just experiencing the situation as if we are in danger.

We cannot help our natural reactions to trauma, just as we cannot control the feeling of hunger when we have not eaten in awhile. Freeing yourself from blame and guilt and seeking professional help when PTSD symptoms emerge will allow you to get in better touch with yourself and develop more satisfaction and insight into your life. This kind of healing promotes resilience and allows for growth to take place.


Melissa Porrey
About Melissa Porrey, MA, LPC, NCC
Virginia | United States

Melissa Porrey, MA, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor who works in the fields of grief and trauma, has worked with veterans and civilians, and currently works with trauma patients at a hospital. She also has a BA in journalism and has published articles in several magazines. She is looking to combine her two passions: people and words. Read more about Melissa at Linkedin. [EN | DE]

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Articles By Melissa Porrey


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