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Secondary Traumatic Stress – What is it and are you at risk?

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Many of you will be familiar with the term secondary traumatic stress – a form of stress that can occur when one person hears details of a trauma experienced by another person.1 While secondary traumatic stress is most often associated with healthcare providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and first responders, it can affect anyone exposed to trauma. As an investigator, you may be susceptible to experiencing secondary traumatic stress when you hear details about a trauma experienced by another person during an interview. The two best ways to protect yourself from the negative effects of this exposure to trauma are to: (1) become familiar with the signs of secondary traumatic stress; and (2) take steps to build your resilience.

Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress 

The signs of secondary traumatic stress are wide-ranging and can be quite serious. Secondary traumatic stress is not like regular work-related stress, which goes away when the stressor does, for example, when you finish an investigation report. The effects of secondary traumatic stress do not go away on their own and are likely to compound over time if not addressed.2

The signs of secondary traumatic stress vary, and include the following feelings and experiences:3

    • Feeling helpless.
    • Feeling extremely tired.
    • Feeling overwhelmed.
    • Feeling disoriented or confused.
    • Experiencing frustration, cynicism, or anger and irritability.
    • Experiencing physical effects, such as shortness of breath, increased headaches, heart palpitations, trouble falling asleep, or muscle tension.

Ignoring the signs of secondary traumatic stress while struggling with other workplace stressors can lead to a form of workplace burnout called compassion fatigue.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue4

If you notice any of the following signs, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue:

    • Feeling anxious, sad, irritable, angry, numb, and/or on edge.
    • A jaded view of the world, cynicism, negativity, and loss of purpose.
    • Headaches, stomach pain, exhaustion, and other physical symptoms.
    • Isolating or detaching from others.
    • Alcohol or substance abuse.
    • Change in eating habits.
    • Struggles with concentration, decision making, and memory.
    • Difficulty sleeping.
    • Loss of empathy.

Strategies for Investigators     

If you know that you will be exposed to the details of trauma during investigation interviews, you should adopt strategies that will help you to avoid the negative effects of that exposure.5

Research suggests that strengthening your resilience is one of the best ways to avoid the effects of exposure to trauma. Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, or significant sources of stress, including workplace stressors.6

The American Psychological Association recommends the following strategies for building resilience.7

    • Prioritize your relationships and create community. The effects of secondary traumatic stress can lead you to isolate yourself. For this reason, you should be mindful about staying connected with empathetic and understanding people, and engaging in a mix of interests, activities, and relationships.
    • Foster wellness. Stress affects you both physically and emotionally. Therefore, a regular self-care routine is important for maintaining your overall physical and mental health and for building your resilience. Positive lifestyle factors like proper nutrition, adequate sleep, hydration, and regular exercise can strengthen your body to adapt to stress and reduce the toll of emotions like anxiety or depression.
    • Practice mindfulness.Mindful journaling, yoga, and other spiritual practices like prayer or meditation can also help you build connections and restore hope, which can prime you to deal with situations that require resilience.
    • Avoid negative outlets.While it can be tempting to mask your stress with alcohol, drugs, or by engaging in mind numbing activities, such as binging on social media, this conduct is generally counterproductive.
    • Normalize the effects of exposure to trauma. Being affected by your exposure to trauma is normal, and secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue are workplace issues. You should not be afraid to discuss the effect(s) of your exposure to trauma with colleagues. Talking about the effects can also reduce the potential for stigma, which can prevent others from coming forward and seeking assistance.8

When to Seek Help   

Taking steps to build resilience will help you manage the effects of exposure to trauma. Knowing the signs of secondary traumatic stress will help you to identify when you need to seek assistance from a healthcare professional.

If you are not sure whether you are experiencing the signs of secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, you can assess yourself for free by using the Professional Quality of Life (“PROQOL”) measure.

Version française

1 Shirley Porter, “Secondary Trauma: Definition, Causes, & How to Cope” (May 18, 2022), online: Choosing Therapy < https://www.choosingtherapy.com/secondary-trauma/> Secondary Trauma: Definition, Causes, & How to Cope (choosingtherapy.com)

2 “The Relationship between secondary trauma and Distress” online: Champions of Wellness < https://www.championsofwellness.com/blog-the-relationship-between-secondary-trauma-and-distress/>

3 “Compassion Fatigue and Self-care for Crisis Counselors” (July 3, 2024), online: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration <https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/ccp-toolkit/self-care-for-crisis-counselors>

4 “How Workplace Investigators Can Prevent Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma”  online: Case IQ < https://www.caseiq.com/resources/how-workplace-investigators-can-prevent-compassion-fatigue-and-vicarious-trauma/>

5 For more information on self-care for investigators, I encourage you to read my colleague Janice Rubin’s blog on this important topic.

6 Dr. Russ Newman, “The road to resilience” (October 2002) 33 American Psychological Association 9, online: < https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct02/pp>

7 “Building your resilience” (February 1, 2020), online: American Psychological Association <https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience/building-your-resilience>

8 Colin James, “Towards trauma-informed legal practice: a review” (2020) 27 Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 2, online: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7476614/#CIT0028>

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