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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 the medical field, trauma refers to a serious injury to the body. 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.

What Is Secondary Trauma?

Woman getting secondary trauma after seeing something horrific on her phone

Secondary trauma, also called vicarious trauma, happens when people feel the emotional and mental effects of hearing about or seeing the suffering of others who have gone through trauma. This can occur in jobs like healthcare, emergency services, or caregiving, where people often hear about or see traumatic events. This can lead to similar symptoms as those who directly experienced trauma, like anxiety, emotional distress, and sometimes even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Signs & Symptoms of 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 this type of trauma are similar to what people who have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) go through. Other 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 Secondary 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 may include elements such as the following:

Begin Treatment for Secondary Trauma in Atlanta, GA

Peachtree Wellness Solutions provides life-affirming mental health services at the residential mental health treatment, 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.