Senior woman Consoling Her Daughter
Published On: November 7, 2017|Categories: Mental Health|

We all know that post-traumatic stress disorder can occur in individuals who have directly experienced or endured either an acute or prolonged trauma. However, not many are as equally familiar with secondary traumatic stress (sometimes familiarly termed compassion fatigue), a distressing mental disorder with symptoms similar to those of PTSD.

What is secondary traumatic stress?

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a mental health condition that can occur when an individual hears about the traumatic events experienced by another or witnesses the effect the traumatic event had on a person (the aftermath).

The term was coined in the early 90s by trauma specialists in an attempt to explain why a number of mental health service providers began displaying signs of PTSD without ever enduring a traumatic event themselves. After being around the topic of trauma, and seeing the symptoms firsthand, it is not uncommon for people to begin feeling the effects themselves in a second-hand fashion.

Certain individuals, including women, those with a more nurturing personality and anyone with unresolved trauma of their own, are more likely to be susceptible to STS and score higher on the secondary traumatic stress scale (a self-assessment used to determine one’s levels of STS).

Additionally, employees in particular career fields are more at risk of developing STS, including:

  • First responders
  • Social workers
  • Child therapists
  • Child welfare workers
  • Physicians
  • Psychotherapists

Those who work with traumatized children especially have a higher risk, with research showing that “6% to 26% of therapists working with traumatized populations, and up to 50% of child welfare workers, are at high risk for secondary traumatic stress or the related conditions of PTSD and vicarious trauma.”

Symptoms of STS

Those who begin developing secondary traumatic stress from exposure to traumatic stories and situations will start to exhibit signs, including:

  • Restlessness
  • Hyper-vigilance and fear
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Avoiding clients, feeling incapable of listening to them or giving them full attention
  • Anger
  • Cynicism
  • Restlessness or trouble sleeping
  • Self-destructive or reckless behavior
  • Exhaustion and burnout
  • Physical illness

For those whose fields of work require constant exposure to stories of or situations involving trauma, it’s evident that their quality of work can be severely compromised when struggling with symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. If not caught early, untreated STS most often causes individuals to leave their field of work, believing they can no longer offer the proper services to their clients.

Additionally, family members or close friends of those who have suffered trauma can develop symptoms of STS, especially if they try to help their loved one work through the aftermath of the trauma on their own. For this reason, it’s important to also seek the guidance of a trained mental health professional for the best treatment plans for those with PTSD and with STS.

Reducing the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress

In certain lines of work, or even being the close friend or family member of someone who has endured trauma, you may be at risk for developing secondary traumatic stress. Just as medical professionals take precautions when around a patient diagnosed with a contagious illness, so, too, should those who frequently are around victims of trauma take the necessary precautions for their mental health, such as:

Skills training

This applies more so to those who directly work with traumatized individuals and find themselves hearing about instances of trauma on a regular basis. In order to take care of those seeking help, and to also take care of themselves personally, it is crucial to receive the proper training. This includes being knowledgeable about STS before it begins and knowing how to address symptoms if they do manifest.


No matter if it’s your profession or if it’s your family member or friend, if you know you’ll be in close contact with an individual who has suffered trauma, it’s important to seek the proper help for yourself.

This can include reaching out to your supervisor for additional training, seeking the services of your company’s employee assistance program or meeting with a counselor yourself for professional guidance and healthy coping strategies.

Maintaining boundaries

Whether this means a healthy work-life balance or a scheduled time to be around your loved one if appropriate, setting boundaries gives you the space to help yourself so you can properly help them. While you do want to be as available as possible, you can only give as much as you’re receiving, so make sure to set time aside for yourself as well.

Taking time to care for yourself

There is nothing more important to preventing secondary traumatic stress than taking care of yourself. This includes getting enough sleep, keeping hydrated, exercising and eating well. Additionally, meditative practices like mindfulness and yoga can have a significant, positive impact on not just your mental health, but your physical health as well.

By taking care of yourself, you’ll be less likely to suffer intense symptoms and more balanced in your mind and body.

Seeking mental health treatment for STS?

If you believe you are suffering the effects of secondary traumatic stress, or are looking to intervene before the symptoms worsen, consider reaching out to The Light Program for professional mental health counseling and personalized treatment plans. To learn more about our services, visit our website or call our offices anytime at 610-644-6464.

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