What is Secondary Trauma?
Secondary trauma, vicarious trauma and less formally, second-hand trauma are all terms used to describe the phenomena where an individual is indirectly, yet significantly impacted by learning of another person’s direct experience of a traumatic event either through visual or auditory input. Symptoms of secondary trauma can vary and can include:
- Indifference and numbness
- Rumination on traumatic images
- A range of bodily pain complaints.
Anything that is experienced as directly disturbing and threatening to one’s sense of safety, well-being and life can be traumatic and jarring and in reality, traumatic events are happening all the time and there are numerous ways in which we are exposed to traumatic events if not directly then indeed indirectly.
Passing an accident scene while driving down the road, witnessing a robbery, listening to news stories about disasters and wars, working in an industry such as healthcare or criminal justice in which one is constantly hearing about others’ trauma can all be experienced as secondary trauma.
In fact, according to the Sidran Institute, 7.3 percent of all adult post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnoses develop as a result of witnessing another person being traumatized – a number which I believe will grow substantially in years to come. And according to The Recovery Village, 5% of all teens will go on to develop PTSD which is most concerning especially due to the fact that our children and teens may be exposed to the same content and with limited internal and external resources and maturity to cope with such exposure.
Factors Contributing to the Rise of Secondary Trauma
I believe there are three main factors that increase vulnerability to the impact of Secondary Trauma. First, we are living in an era of hyper-technological-connectivity and voyeurism via digital and social media. We are consistently flooded with disturbing and graphic images and news stories of other peoples horrible and frightening experiences. Not that we should not be made aware of what’s happening either near or around the world, yet the access and availability we have to such information and images is like no other period of time. Such ongoing exposure to graphic content inevitably takes a toll on our nervous system. Could we even imagine what it would have been like to experience World War I or II through the prism of our current media channels? Immediate and uncensored exposure to graphic and violent content is our current reality and will continue to be so in a more profound way in the future.
Second, we are living in an extraordinary era with recurrent major natural disasters, political instability and major world conflicts happening simultaneously and intertwined in a kaleidoscope of human experience of dread, fear and helplessness. It all seems and certainly feels like too much at times. And revisiting point one, all of which are readily available for real time experience through the digital news and social media.
Third, although we are technologically interconnected like never before, we are at the same time as a society extraordinarily disconnected, isolated and lonely. Migrations, technological developments, the breakdown of communities and reduced levels of religious affiliation have resulted in profound emotional and social disconnection and isolation.
According to the Global State of Social Connection Report conducted in 142 countries in 2023, 51 percent of people report feeling lonely, with 21% feeling very lonely. Loneliness is a strong risk factor for the development of emotional trauma and may impact a person’s ability to be resilient in the face of trauma. Quality connection with others is paramount in paramount processing and healing from trauma. I strongly believe that as the world continues to become more isolated and lonely, we will have less chance to work through our traumas, both direct and indirect and the will the number of suffering traumatized individuals will significantly increase.
Proactive Strategies to Diminish the Effects of Secondary Trauma
- Awareness of the Symptoms of trauma– One of the most important skills in managing secondary trauma is cultivating awareness of the possible symptoms (as discussed earlier). Being aware of the symptoms allows us to intervene and tend to them before they become more deeply ingrained.
- Selective Screening of Information– We tend to be knowledgeable about how to take care of our bodies through diet and exercise. Feeding our minds with healthy material is equally important. Ensuring that we are limiting potentially traumatizing content while exposing our attention to positive, growth promoting and soothing content is vital for our nervous system. Setting limits with ourselves in regards to the amount of time we expose ourselves to digital and social media is essential for our well-being and being vigilant about the potential impact to the information we are consuming.
- Making Informed Choices on Sources of Media– Due to the wide range of information and opinions available about world events and conflicts, it is essential that we make a commitment to be more knowledgeable and informed about world events and the type of information we are consuming. With regards to information we are obtaining it is important to evaluate the credibility of the source as well as have an understanding of the context, content and possible subjectivity of the report outlet. Some media outlets tend to be more sensational in their delivering of news and others more fact based. Also, listening to radio coverage versus watching visual coverage can have a different impact on your nervous system.
- Connecting with our Support Networks– Living in an age of both increased isolation and increased exposure to trauma will require us to be more active in regards to seeking out real life social connections, as opposed to social media ones). As mentioned earlier social connections are a vital need and an important resource in preventing, managing and mitigating trauma. There are a variety of ways of meeting people today through volunteer organizations, social clubs, religious affiliation and Meet Up groups. However, it may require us to be more assertive and active in doing so. Making a commitment to calling two friends a week can be a very beneficial exercise to commit to.
- Focus on Replenishing and Regeneration– Our nervous systems tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of trauma when we are feeling depleted and burnt out. Therefore it is vital to inoculate our body and mind by engaging in activities which provide us with a sense of vitality, meaning and purpose as well as provide us with a focus on self-care and wellness. Proper sleep, nutrition and exercise are so vital in this process. Managing our mindset, setting life goals and holding ourselves accountable are essential for our well-being. To this end I would highly recommend a values reflection activity, which helps us connect to the most important values that provide us with the most meaning and purpose such as can be found at this link
- Developing our Ability to Self-Reflect- Self reflection is an important skill that can help us both prevent and manage the effects of trauma and secondary trauma by building a sense of groundedness and internal solidity. A simple practice could be taking 5 minutes at the end of the day to record your highs and lows from the day and what you felt was the most meaningful moment or lesson learned. Journaling, while not for everyone, can really be of benefit. Cultivating an active dialogue with our thoughts, feelings and different aspects of yourself is essential for our ability to cope and foster resilience.