Self-Care for Practitioners: Secondary Traumatic Stress


Definition of Secondary Traumatic Stress

Psychology Professor Charles Figley, who named Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), define it as “the natural behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about traumatizing events experienced by another.” Healthcare workers and first responders have an increase risk of occupational Secondary Traumatic Stress, which can lead to physical, mental, and emotional health issues. STS can happen immediately after witnessing another’s trauma, this is not necessarily a chronic scenario building up over time.

Signs & Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress

Champions of Wellness offers a comprehensive list of signs and symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress. Please take a look at the list below to see if you may be at risk:

  • Physiological – Headaches, ulcers, heartburn, rashes
  • Emotional – Irritability, mood-swings, grief, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, loss of purpose, low self-worth
  • Cognitive – Difficulty concentrating, difficulty focusing, altered memory, difficulty making decisions
  • Behavioral – Eating pattern irregularity, disturbances in sleep patterns, isolation, and substance abuse

How to Cope With Secondary Traumatic Stress

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress has identified the increased risk of Secondary Traumatic Stress for healthcare personnel throughout the pandemic and have offered some ideas on how to cope with STS and move beyond the trauma if possible.

Some of their suggestions include:

  • Meet Your Basic Needs – Focus on eating, drinking, and sleeping on your regular schedule. These base biological needs are the foundation for a healthy you.
  • Rest – Take breaks, even short breaks for a couple of minutes to breath and center yourself, whenever possible while on duty. When off duty, make sure you are engaging in activities you enjoy and relax you.
  • Connect With Your Colleagues – Support one another, discuss your experiences if that will help you and if they are open to that (remember to respect each others’ differences where some will want to talk and others will want to process on their own), and be aware of how you are communicating. Stay positive and encourage them to do the same as much as possible!
  • Honor Your Service – You are a hero! You take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, which is a noble calling. Don’t let the struggles diminish that! Celebrate yourself and celebrate your colleagues!

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