What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary traumatic stress disorder can occur in anyone who hears the firsthand account of a trauma experienced by another person. That trauma experienced by the individual then affects the second individual intensely, causing symptoms that mimic PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological disorder that affects survivors of a traumatic incident. Secondary Traumatic Stress may also be referred to as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma.

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What are the Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress?

The common symptoms of this disorder are similar to those experienced by those who have undergone the traumatic event or events themselves. These can include:

  • Social discomfort and withdrawal
  • Fear
  • Exhaustion
  • Disconnection from others
  • Hopelessness
  • Guilt
  • Avoidance symptoms (such as avoiding the person who gave them the first-hand account of the trauma)
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • An inability to care for oneself or a disinterest in self-care
  • Insomnia
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Irritability
  • An inability to care for or help others
  • Intense nightmares
  • Problems focusing

Stress is another of the most intensive symptoms and that which may be noticed by other individuals. Secondary traumatic stress can cause its own set of symptoms that, while similar to those of PTSD, can often be more difficult for individuals to notice within themselves.

Who Suffers from Secondary Traumatic Stress?

This syndrome, according to the VA, is commonly experienced by “supporters/helpers of those experiencing PTSD.” This can include clinicians such as doctors and nurses, caseworkers, therapists, counselors, and other people who dedicate their lives to helping those who have been through terrible traumas. It is vey likely to occur in those who work with veterans, rape survivors, and children with histories of abuse.

Though these individuals have taken jobs where they want to help others through these terrible events and the lasting impressions they have left, it can be extremely difficult to do it every day. Sometimes, a certain case may particularly affect an individual in this position, or this disorder may be caused by a long string of cases that eventually make the person feel miserable and burnt out.

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Is There a Treatment for Secondary Traumatic Stress?

stress disorder

People can be profoundly impacted by the traumas that others have experienced.

Yes, there are ways in which a person can be treated for this disorder. The USDHHS “addresses the challenges professionals face” in dealing with patients who have undergone severe trauma and discusses “ways to cope” with the development of this disorder that include

  • Individualized therapy
  • Support groups/organizations
  • Internet resources

In addition, the CWLA states that a program was developed called The Resilience Alliance Program in order to “address secondary traumatic disorder and reduce attrition among Child Protective Services staff.” The program is meant to be preventative and to help train counselors and other individuals who may be in danger of experiencing this disorder to guard against it.

Secondary traumatic stress disorder can be extremely troubling because many caregivers do not realize that it may become a possibility, and others do not know how to reach out for help once they are affected by it. Discussing the disorder has helped its prevention, diagnosis, and treatment become more widely understood in the case of supporters who treat trauma survivors and those living with PTSD.

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