Is There an Echo In Here? Understanding Secondary Trauma

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

Last summer I visited with an old friend who is now a criminal defense attorney in California.  She once defended a murder suspect in a child homicide case.

                “Was it difficult to hear the details of the crime?”  I asked her.  She shook her head. 

                “To be honest, it upsets me more to lose a case than to look at pictures of dead children.” She responded blithely. 

“Huh,” I said, once I recovered my ability to speak and was able to pick my jaw up off the floor. 

I was trying to probe her for secondary trauma, a phenomenon that happens to first responders (police, firemen, emergency medical personnel) as well as other professionals exposed to the suffering of others through their work (social workers, attorneys, domestic violence advocates, community service providers, etc…).

Also known as vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burn out, secondary trauma is more likely to occur to:

  1. those with a high degree of interpersonal empathy (in other words, my friend is probably fairly safe)
  2. who are exposed repeatedly and/or unexpectedly to the trauma of others, and
  3. have their own unresolved trauma issues

How do you know if you have a high degree of interpersonal empathy?  One easy way to tell is to use your body as a thermometer:  If you can feel a sense of constriction in your chest when someone is describing a sad or painful experience, you do.

What does “unexpected” exposure have to do with secondary trauma?  When we know that something difficult is about to happen we brace ourselves mentally and are less alarmed.  This is why horror movies always use a limited field of view and jerky camera shots: scary things suddenly flying into our field of vision are much scarier than being prepared for what is coming. 

What does “unresolved trauma issues” mean?  Essentially this boils down to the concept of an emotional trigger.  Just as the trigger of a gun shoots the thing (the full extent of my firearm knowledge) domestic violence survivors and child abuse survivors are often triggered or emotionally activated by the exploitation of vulnerable populations.  This makes them passionate and effective social justice advocates, but in order to maintain a balanced life, they may need to get professional support if they pursue work in the helping field. 

The difference between primary, or personal trauma and secondary trauma is that the trauma did not occur directly to the sufferer and so they may fail to recognize what is happening to them or why. 

Similar to emotional abuse victims who are often far slower to recognize their experience as abuse, secondary trauma suffers are less likely to seek help because they often simply fail to put together what they have been exposed to and the symptoms they are experiencing. 

                Secondary trauma symptoms include general feelings of fear or jumpiness, difficulty sleeping, memories of the trauma intruding on memory, and avoidant behaviors. 

If you or someone you know appears to be suffering from secondary trauma, individual therapy as well as CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) groups can help. 

I am co facilitating a six hour MCLE training at the end of this month for attorneys called “What Every Attorney Need to Know about Trauma.”   We will be discussing ways to work effectively with traumatized clients as well as how to avoid secondary trauma. 

 For more information please check out my website www.therapistseattle.net

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