Being exposed to the trauma of others can take a toll on your mental health. It is hard to witness the traumatic experiences of someone else without being impacted. When you are continuously exposed to another’s suffering, you could develop secondary traumatic stress (STS).
What Is Secondary Traumatic Stress
Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) refers to the emotional duress that results from being exposed to a traumatic event indirectly. The exposure can include hearing about the event from someone directly involved. It can also happen by seeing video of a trauma in the media. STS is also known as vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue and can occur in first responders and those in the helping profession. However, STS can occur in anyone indirectly exposed to repeated traumatic events and human or animal suffering. It is more likely to occur if you closely relate to the trauma and the potential impact it could have on you as an individual. Symptoms related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often occur. There can be a belief that the world is no longer safe. This can impact your ability to feel empathy and compassion and can lead to both physical and mental exhaustion.
Causes Of STS
STS is commonly caused by repeated secondary exposure to trauma. Those who work directly with traumatized children and abuse victims and are hear their stories can develop STS. It can also occur in people that work with abused or injured animals. Likewise, it can develop in anyone that works with evidence related to violent crimes. Watching news footage of natural disasters and school shootings can lead to STS. While PTSD can develop as a response to direct experiences with racism and discrimination, STS can occur from witnessing someone else going through it. This can be especially true for African Americans who watch or witness acts of aggression, violent treatment, and murders of Black Americans. STS can also trigger memories of your own personal traumatic experiences.
Symptoms Of STS
If you are experiencing STS, you may notice a number of behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms. You could experience sleep disturbances and chronic exhaustion. Feelings of apathy, numbness, and hopelessness can develop. An exaggerated startle reflex can occur. In addition, you can become hypervigilant. You may feel overwhelmed and withdraw from others both physically and emotionally. Anxiety can increase and you can experience feelings of guilt. You can experience an increase in physical symptoms such as aches and pains and stomach upset. Although you may go through the motions, there can be a loss of faith. You could also begin to believe that the world is unsafe. If you are having symptoms related to STS, there are things you can do to help.
If you are experiencing symptoms of STS, it is important that you get appropriate support. Share your experiences and feelings with friends and family members that you trust. If you are in a helping profession and experience symptoms of STS, seek supervision. Counseling can help if your STS is having a negative impact on your functioning. If you experience STS, you will probably want to isolate. However, spending time with others and talking about your experiences can help improve symptoms of STS so it doesn’t have a negative effect on your well-being.
In addition to seeking support, you also want to practice self-care if you are experiencing STS. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating properly, and exercising. Learn coping skills that decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Focus on your breathing, allow yourself to feel your feelings, and keep a journal. Spend time each day doing things that you enjoy. Practice mindfulness and think about the things you are grateful for. Make time in your day for joy and relaxation.
If at all possible, limit your exposure to the trauma of others. This can mean avoiding movies, books, podcasts, and videos that depict human and animal suffering. It can also include taking frequent breaks at work and varying your activities. Limiting the amount of time you spend on social media and watching the news can also be beneficial if you are experiencing symptoms of STS. When you limit your exposure to traumatic events, your sense of safety can improve.
Advocating for social change can help improve symptoms of STS. Support the causes that you believe in. Speak up for those that have no voice or are marginalized in our society. Instead of focusing only on the suffering, shift your focus to how you can make a difference. Lobby for the positive changes that you want to see. Working towards systemic change can help you feel more empowered and can help improve symptoms of STS.
If you are experiencing symptoms of STS and it is having a negative impact on your emotional well-being, let someone know. There is support available if you need help managing your STS. Understanding STS and how it might impact you can encourage you to take important steps to protect your mental health.