When Trauma Doesn’t Happen To You {Managing Secondary Trauma}

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Talking about how we feel is an important ritual in processing our emotions and moving through personal trauma. But what if the trauma you need to process doesn’t belong to you? What if it belongs to a family member? Or a close friend?

I recently learned about secondary trauma and the importance of processing someone else’s trauma. 

Within my role as an on-call higher education professional, I have experienced instances of campus crisis and student emergencies that harbored trauma for the students involved. After addressing the crisis and connecting students to resources, I felt a certain degree of grief myself although the event didn’t happen to me directly. 

What I was experiencing is called secondary trauma, I just didn’t know how to name it.

As a result, I wasn’t processing my feelings. I thought:

“Why am I sad? This didn’t happen to me. It is not my grief.”

I didn’t accept or own the trauma since it wasn’t directly happening to me; it was happening with my students. I now recognize accepting and processing secondary trauma in cultivating my own personal mental health. Sharing and unpacking experienced trauma, both personal and secondary, is a healthy ritual. 

To process any sort of trauma, I recommend consulting with a professional. Talking with someone has done wonders for me and my mental health. In this particular instance, I consulted with Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, LMHC, CRC, a subject area specialist in secondary trauma. Here’s what she had to say:

How can families identify the presence of secondary trauma in their lives?  

“Family members can recognize they are experiencing secondary trauma (after the disclosure of a first-hand traumatic experience) if they notice an increase in generalized or specific anxieties, experience night terrors or nightmares, decreased sleep, or rumination of the disclosed event. No need to question, “Am I being dramatic?” – if you’re feeling negatively as a result of a traumatic event (even one that happened to someone else), your body can be greatly impacted – reach out, don’t question yourself. Self-judgement isn’t helpful here.”

What is the difference between personal trauma and secondary trauma? 

“Trauma is experienced when one experiences an event in which they believe their lives or the lives of others are at risk of death or serious impairment. Secondary trauma is the emotional response one can experience when they HEAR second-hand about a traumatic event. For example, if you were alive on 9/11, watching it on TV could have created personal trauma for you (we were worried about our lives during that time), but if you were born after 2001 (or were very young at the time) and your family tells you about their experience that day, a traumatic response would be considered secondary.”

What tools and coping mechanisms would you recommend for spouses, parents, and families experiencing secondary trauma? 

Seek help. Anytime someone is experiencing trauma, it’s important to put your feelings of ‘feeling silly or dramatic’ to the side and reach out to someone. Trauma is trauma; our bodies don’t really know the difference between personal and secondary – the effects can often be the same, though. Also, consider reaching out to professionals rather than friends in an attempt to stop the spread of the trauma. Professionals are trained to thwart off secondary traumatization and know what to do if they also begin to have a trauma response.”

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