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What Is Secondary Trauma?

Did you know that you can be negatively affected by a traumatic experience even if you weren’t present when the event took place? This is known as secondary trauma. In this post, we’ll answer questions such as, What is secondary trauma? Who is at risk for secondary trauma? and What types of treatment can help?

What Is Trauma?

Before we discuss secondary trauma, let’s take a moment to clarify what we mean when we use the word trauma itself. This is important, because trauma can mean several different things, depending on the context in which the word is used.

In the medical field, trauma refers to a serious injury to the body. As defined by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, physical trauma usually occurs in one of the following two ways:

  • Blunt force trauma: This term describes concussions, broken bones, and other injuries that occur when the body is impacted by an object or force. Trauma that results from physical assaults or auto accidents would typically fall into the subcategory of blunt force trauma.
  • Penetrative trauma: This type of trauma occurs when the body is pierced by an object, which results in an open wound. Shootings and stabbings are example of events that can cause penetrative trauma.

Among mental health professionals, trauma describes the emotional or psychological response to life-threatening or otherwise terrifying experiences. Some of the events that can cause physical trauma (such as car accidents and acts of violence) can also cause psychological trauma.

In the aftermath of an extremely distressing experience, it is common to be upset, afraid, or angry. These are normal responses that are not cause for concern. But if these emotions persist for an extended period, or if they become so intense that they impair a person’s ability to function, then that individual may be struggling with psychological trauma.

Unless otherwise noted, when we use the word “trauma” in the remainder of this post, we will be referring to psychological trauma.

What Is Secondary Trauma?

Trauma can develop after one or more particularly difficult events, such as sexual assaults, physical attacks, or acts of terrorism. It may also occur after extended exposure to certain experiences, such as ongoing child abuse or neglect, or persistent online or verbal harassment.

When these types of events occur, the following people may be traumatized:

  • Those who were directly involved in the event
  • Individuals who witnessed the event
  • People who learned about the details of a traumatic event that involved a loved one
  • Professionals such as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and doctors who are frequently exposed to the after-effects of traumatic occurrences

Mental health professionals use the term “secondary trauma” to describe people in the last two categories above. The answer to the question, “What is secondary trauma?” is that it is a negative psychological reaction that occurs after learning of someone else’s traumatic experience or viewing the results of another person’s physical trauma.

As is the case with people who are directly involved in trauma, people may develop secondary trauma after acquiring the details of one or more traumatic events or after ongoing exposure to the aftereffects of traumatic occurrences.

Signs & Symptoms of Secondary Trauma

Now that you know what is secondary trauma, let’s turn our attention to another important topic: How can you identify if you or someone that you care about have developed secondary trauma?

Here are some signs and symptoms that may indicate that a person is living with untreated secondary trauma:

  • Having difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep
  • Disturbing nightmares related to another person’s traumatic experience
  • Distressing thoughts that occur at random times throughout the day
  • Significant change in appetite
  • Abusing alcohol or other drugs to block uncomfortable feelings or numb emotional pain
  • Dramatic changes in mood and attitude
  • Persistent sense of exhaustion
  • Avoiding people or places that are associated with the traumatic event
  • Feeling as though they are constantly in danger, even when there is no credible reason to believe they are at risk of being harmed
  • Finding it difficult to get up and go to work

Some symptoms of secondary trauma are similar to what people who have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) go through. Other secondary trauma symptoms can look like burnout. 

Regardless of which types of symptoms a person develops, untreated secondary trauma can have a powerful negative impact on their psychological well-being and overall quality of life. But when a person receives proper professional care, they can process their experiences and regain control of their thoughts and feelings.

Treatment Options for Trauma

Secondary trauma treatment often involves a combination of medication and therapy.

The type of medication a person receives and the forms of therapy that are most beneficial for them can vary depending on several individual factors. These factors can include the nature and severity of their symptoms, how long they have been living with untreated secondary trauma, and if they have any co-occurring mental or behavioral health concerns.

After the individual’s needs have been thoroughly assessed, effective care for secondary trauma may include elements such as the following:

  • Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications
  • Individual and group therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
  • Red light therapy
  • Spravato treatment
  • Biosound therapy
  • Neurofeedback therapy

Begin Trauma Treatment in Atlanta, GA

Peachtree Wellness Solutions provides life-affirming mental health services at the residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient levels. Our mental health treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia, is a trusted source of quality care for adults whose lives have been disrupted by secondary trauma and other mental and behavioral health challenges. To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our admissions page or call us today.