Secondary Trauma

Posted by Stephanie Lawless on 4/2/2020 7:00:00 AM

If you have been through one of my CPI trainings you have probably heard the story I tell about my PTSD from teaching. I unofficially diagnosed myself as traumatized. While some of that trauma came from state testing, most of it came from the students and student histories I was exposed to. 

The exact moment I knew I had been traumatized by my job was when I was sitting in a meeting in which the stated purpose was to come up with strategies to support a struggling student. The student was actively in crisis so the school psychologist called on the phone. While we sat there talking to her on speaker the student was crying and screaming in the background. I was unaware of how this was impacting me until the school psychologist sitting next to me asked if I was okay. I had gone completely pale, had goosebumps, and was holding onto the table. Once he mentioned it to me, I realized that I was feeling the same way I felt when I was in a room with a student in crisis. I don’t know how to describe it; not panic, but more like helplessness. The closest feeling I can compare it to is when you see two cars that are about to crash, you know it is going to happen but there is nothing you can do to stop it. Completely helpless. 

I felt the same way when I would read a student’s history. I would read about levels of abuse I could not even begin to fathom. They experienced trauma that would almost seem unreal if it were in a movie. I would absorb these stories and then face this little kid, knowing what they had lived through. At the time I didn’t realize what was happening to me. I figured I was just doing a poor job managing my stress. However, now I have learned about secondary trauma and feel that might help explain some of my feelings. 

“Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. These experiences can give rise to significant emotional and behavioral problems that can profoundly disrupt the children’s lives and bring them in contact with child-serving professionals. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life. Individual and supervisory awareness of the effects of this indirect trauma exposure is a basic part of protecting the health of the worker and ensuring that children consistently receive the best possible care from those who are committed to helping them.” (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network> Trauma-Informed Care > Secondary Traumatic Stress

The National Traumatic Stress Network provides suggestions on how to manage these feelings if you are experiencing them. For me, I had to be aware of what I was experiencing. I also had to improve my self-care. I started working out and eating better. In order to focus on my feelings I found supportive co-workers who had experienced similar situations, and we talked about how we felt. The last thing I did, which was just my personal preference, was to limit my exposure to outside experience that I felt took a toll on my outlook. I chose to stop watching the news, stop reading the news, and stop listening to it on the radio. As someone who listened to news radio on the way to work, checked it periodically on social media throughout the day, and watched it at night, this was a pretty drastic step. But, it made a huge difference in my ability to maintain a healthy outlook. Just like I was monitoring the foods I ate, I was monitoring the images and content I put in my thoughts. Now, I am not nearly as informed about things as I used to be, but I am also better equipped to do my job and support the cases I do. For me, it was a necessary step. 

If you feel you need support please reach out to someone. Educate yourself, and know you are not alone. 

NTSN has several resources they share on their site for more information about secondary trauma:

 The quote I am going to leave you with today is a lengthy one, but so powerful:

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. This sort of denial is no small matter. The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life and help. We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve. We burn out because we’ve allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care.” (Rachel Naomi Remen: “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” Penguin, New York,1996)



Stephanie Lawless, Assistant Director