Resource Guide for Coping with Secondhand Trauma

Resource Guide for Coping with Secondhand Trauma

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky remembers the moment she was close to a psychotic break.

In a 2015 TEDx talk titled Beyond the Cliff,” the veteran social worker and founder of The Trauma Stewardship Institute recounted a vacation where she was standing on the edge of a very tall cliff, thinking, “I wonder how many people have killed themselves by jumping off of these cliffs.” 

“Where would the helicopter land? Is there a Level 1 trauma center in the Caribbean? Do they fly you to Miami?” she asked out loud, forgetting the people around her. After a long silence, a family member approached and asked, “Are you sure all this trauma work hasn’t gotten to you?”

In that moment, she realized the emotional toll of her work was causing secondhand trauma.

“Over time, what you’re exposed to affects your entire world view,” she said. 

What Is Secondhand Trauma?

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 (PDF, 102KB). When those in helping professions hear clients talk about what they experienced and see their physical reaction to the experiences, they may also begin to feel the effects of trauma. In some cases, the condition can be a cumulative effect from hearing multiple accounts in their daily work, Dernoot Lipsky noted in her talk. 

Secondhand trauma, also referred to as trauma exposure response, secondhand stress and secondary traumatic stress, may manifest in a number of symptoms ranging in level of severity, from headaches, stress eating or loss of appetite to chronic exhaustion and paranoia, the ACA reports. Social Workers, first responders, physicians, nurses, rape counselors, school counselors, coroners, lawyers, and teachers are among the professionals who may be at risk for secondhand trauma. But anybody can feel the effects of this form of trauma if they are repeatedly exposed to traumatic stories and images in the news or on social media, for example. 

What Are the Signs of Secondhand Trauma or Trauma Exposure Response?

Secondhand trauma or trauma exposure response has multiple symptoms, although individuals may not exhibit all of them.

Lipsky’s book, “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others,” identifies 16 signs of trauma exposure response:

  • Hopelessness and helplessness
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Hypervigilance
  • Diminished creativity
  • Inability to embrace creativity
  • Minimizing
  • Chronic exhaustion/Physical ailments
  • Inability to listen/Deliberate avoidance
  • Dissociative moments
  • Sense of persecution
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anger and cynicism
  • Numbing/Inability to empathize
  • Addictions
  • Grandiosity

How Can Secondhand Trauma Impact the Work of Professionals?

Unchecked, secondhand trauma can be debilitating, like the emotional numbing associated with compassion fatigue. When those in helping professions see a great demand for their services, they may ignore signs of their own trauma to serve others.

“It’s important for you to attend to it because if you ignore the impact of trauma, it continues to affect you and it starts to affect your work with clients or whoever you help, whoever you work with,” Maryland social worker Laurie Reagan, LCSW-C, said on her podcast, “Therapy Chat,” in an episode on vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress.

Secondhand trauma “can lead to burnout, and burnout is a career-ender,” Reagan added. “And that’s tragic because we need people who care about helping.” 

The effects of secondhand trauma on workers can impede the work of organizations and agencies that provide necessary care leading to increased absenteeism, impaired judgment, low productivity, poor work quality, high staff turnover and greater staff friction, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families’ guide to secondary traumatic stress.

How to Prevent Secondhand Trauma

Mindful intention is a useful method to address secondary traumatic stress, Reagan said in her podcast, as is taking the time to pause and think about purpose in what you do.

While secondhand trauma may seem inevitable, there are steps to take to prevent and cope with its effects. SocialWorkLicenseMap.com summarized recommendations by Reagan, the DHHS Administration for Children and Families guide and “Secondary Traumatic Stress: A Fact Sheet for Organizations Employing Community Violence Workers (PDF,  191KB),” by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

What can you do?


Exercise

Walk more, hit the gym or join a dance class.

Rest and relax

Get enough sleep, use mindful intention and meditate.

Spend time in nature

Find places to appreciate the outdoors and maintain perspective.

Connect with others and ask for help

Talk about your feelings with people you trust, such as loved ones, friends, and support groups, or see a mental health professional.

Use your creative expression

Paint, cook, start a journal or do woodworking.

Assertiveness yourself and manage your time

Learn to say “no” and set limits.

Celebrate your work

Identify how you have helped others and be proud of positive outcomes you facilitated.

Plan for coping

Identify the skills and strategies that work best for you when signs of secondhand trauma appear.

What can organizations do?


Promote self-care and prioritize staff care

Let employees use sick leave for mental health days and to exercise, engage in team sports, etc.

Divide responsibilities and ensure diverse workloads

Reduce intensity and duration of exposure to most disturbing encounters with trauma.

Offer professional training and encourage staff development

Promote trust and appreciation for employees’ work.

Create opportunities for staff to connect with the community outside work

Build organizational relationships with clients and communities.

Ensure a safe work environment and provide equipment for workers to be safe

Assure employees that their employer cares about them.

Provide counseling resources

Encourage employees to get help and acknowledge mental and emotional needs.

Where to Find Help for Secondhand Trauma

Organizations and Support Groups

Toolkits, Fact Sheets and Brochures

Books

Podcasts and Videos

Self-Care Resources

Apps

Social worker Stephen Cummings writes in The New Social Worker that these apps encourage meditation:

  • Calm: Helps reduce anxiety, build self-esteem and experience the other benefits of meditation.
  • Headspace: Provides meditations to help with concentration, mood, stress and anxiety.
  • Insight Timer: Provides guided meditation without a subscription fee.

David Rebedew, MD, wrote in The American Academy of Physicians journal FPM that these exercise apps support a more active lifestyle among patients:

  • C25K (Couch to 5K): A free program to help inactive patients raise their cardiovascular stamina by running or walking.
  • Charity Miles: Offers walking incentive by converting miles walked into money for the user’s charity of choice.
  • Zombies, Run!: Combines role-playing game with a story to motivate users to run more and faster. 

Fact sheets and websites