Mike is happy his friend Daniel made it safely back to the States after spending years on the battlefield. Daniel was involved in many dangerous military missions, and Mike and his friends were never sure if he would make it back alive. Now that Daniel is back, Mike has been spending as much time with him as he can, but some weird things have been happening to Mike’s mind and body, and he isn’t sure what’s going on. The more time they spend together, the more comfortable Daniel becomes in sharing detailed stories and experiences from the battlefield. Daniel has described gun fights, wounds, deaths he saw up close and terrible things he had to accomplish with his own hands. Mike used to love listening to Daniel’s stories, but lately he dreads spending time with him. When he thinks about the stories he has heard, his heart starts beating faster. He has been having nightmares involving terrible images, and he has been making every excuse possible not to spend time with his friend. He likes Daniel and wants to be there for him, but he suspects there is a connection between Daniel’s stories and the symptoms he is experiencing.
Jessica and Cody could not wait to be foster parents, but they are realizing it is a lot harder than they originally thought it would be. The two teenagers they took in came from abusive parents, and the years of abuse have taken a toll on the children. Jessica and Cody have worked hard to establish a trusting relationship with the boys, and the hard work is paying off. The boys feel safe and comfortable, and they have begun to talk about their previous home. The couple both come from abusive backgrounds as well, which is why they wanted to foster in the first place. At first they were delighted that the boys trusted them enough to talk about their up-bringing, but as they listen to the detailed stories of the boys’ abuse, they realize it is impacting them more than they anticipated. Cody hasn’t thought about his dad in years, yet now thoughts of his own childhood are regular and persistent. Neither adult is sleeping. Both feel anxious much of the time, and this is beginning to affect how they parent the two boys, both of whom desperately need safety and security. They realize something has to change before they ruin the trust and security they have built for the boys.
The scenarios above pertain to what mental health professionals refer to as secondary trauma. Others may recognize these as symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue, but the end result is the same. Hearing—and thus indirectly experiencing—the traumatic experiences of another can have consequences, such as a lack of empathy, undue stress on the body, and an inability to process emotions.
What is secondary trauma?
Secondary trauma is being discussed more as trauma and responses to trauma have become a more common conversation in public spheres. Secondary trauma describes the distress a person can feel after hearing detailed, traumatic events from someone else. It is often associated with those in a “helping career,” such as therapy or medicine. It can also be experienced by those who have foster children, are in the process of adopting, or who have a friend in a high-stress job, such as police or military.
When an individual directly experiences a highly stressful situation that the body and mind find too distressing to process normally, it can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This abnormal storage of traumatic details causes stressful physical and psychological responses, such as memory flashbacks, trouble sleeping, mood alteration and anger. Compassion fatigue can cause some of the same responses. However, one difference between the two is in the number of responses required for a diagnosis. With PTSD, a person needs a traumatic experience and several symptoms to receive a diagnosis.
Conversely, secondary trauma only needs one symptom and does not require direct exposure to a traumatic event. Additionally, it is not uncommon to see a change in empathy towards those from whom they are hearing the trauma. For example, Jessica and Cody love being foster parents, but hearing the boys’ stories brings up issues they themselves have not dealt with, making it hard to be compassionate and understanding.
How to cope with secondary trauma
In fields like counseling, therapists are often encouraged to create outlets for their stress to minimize the effects of secondary trauma. They are encouraged to meet with other professionals to talk through stressful events. They often take breaks to decompress and are very encouraged to stay healthy by exercising, get lots of sunlight, and adopt hobbies that allow them to separate from the stress their work brings. However, what are people who deal with secondary trauma who aren’t trained specialists supposed to do? Specifically, for dads and moms dealing with the adoption or the foster care system, secondary trauma can be a side effect they never expected when they set out to help a child.
PTSD and secondary trauma both elevate a person’s nervous system. If you find that in certain situations you lose control of your breathing, can’t focus on what is around you, and the world seems to become smaller and smaller, you may be experiencing side effects of compassion fatigue.
Breathe and talk to yourself. Calming self-talk, slow breathing and bringing awareness to the current moment are all ways to slow your “trauma response” and helps you figure out what escalated your body in the first place.
Put it in a box. For parents with young children who may be dealing with learning to distinguish thoughts, behaviors, and emotions associated with trauma can be an effective way to put traumatic conversations or thoughts in what therapists call a “box.” The box is an example of a container exercise that allows the person struggling with stressful thoughts to imagine their worries in a container that they do not have access to, and do not have to deal with at the present moment. This box does not get rid of the stressful thoughts, but it does contain them in a way that makes it easier to function until it is time to discuss it.
Rest. The most effective tool for a parent who believes they may be suffering from compassion fatigue is rest. This doesn’t just mean naps; however, those are good, too. It is important to take time to be away from the situation where you are around someone with a lot of trauma. For parents navigating the foster care system, this can include organizing with caretakers to take the children for the weekend to give the parents time alone, and time to spend together. The children often have therapists and support systems to help work through their pain, but the adults who listen to them, love them and care for them also need to practice appropriate self-care.
Talk to someone. For people in the helping field, it can feel selfish to take time for yourself, but it is important to remember that you cannot help anyone if you yourself are falling apart. Another important tool to dealing with compassion fatigue is talking. This may feel simple, but the more you talk with others, especially a professional, the more you are able to work through the concerns and stress that is causing your mind to get stuck.
Noticing that you are beginning to become burnt out by helping others can be a hard first step, but it is the most important one to getting help. If you are interested in learning more, there are links below that offer some more reading about compassion fatigue.
Healing Secondary Trauma- https://a.co/d/6Qia0kz
Help for the Helper- https://a.co/d/ahBeaPI
Tips for Dealing with Compassion Fatigue- https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4869.pdf
Drew Dilisio is the Director of Counseling Services at Good Dads. He is a graduate of Evangel University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, a husband and father. He can be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.