Secondary (or vicarious) Trauma in Caregivers

Second Hand Stress is real! There is potential injury  on all sides of any incident

Many of my friends are either first responders, medical pro’s, social workers, pastors or family caregivers of some sort.  Much is written, and rightfully so, about Post Traumatic Stress but more needs to be said about the same sort of problems with those who care for those who have had psychological, physical or spiritual trauma.

Care Givers of all kinds and their families are susceptible to all of the symptoms of PTSD even though you are being hit by the trauma second hand.  Trauma is subtle!  Family care givers can be injured.  You don’t have to be related to a soldier or a fireman, experience a plane crash or cancer to know this type of injury. 

The first step in healing is to recognize it in yourself.  “Coping Strategies” have to be a part of your life BEFORE a trauma occurs to be effective .  The best step is to have a plan of self-care that keeps you whole while you do what you do.

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is “commonly referred to as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”*   Vicarious trauma  is the term used to describe the “cumulative transformative effect of working with survivors of traumatic life events.“**” (  Sometimes this is called “compassion fatigue” or “caregiver burnout.”  In Alan-Terms, the hurts of others can hurt us when we give care.  What can care givers do about it?

Cope before you hurt: Develop healthy listening relationships with friends and family-listen to them as well as you vent to them.  Develop time for hobbies, reading, exercise, healthy diet, going to church, and watch our for the caffeine-tobacco,  and alcohol.  Intentionally take care of yourself- Body Mind and Spirit.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries: All caregivers must have a safe place and time that is crisis free.  This is especially difficult when you are always “ON” like taking care of family or being on call like a pastor or chaplain.  Take charge of your calendar as much as possible.  This may be your office, the garage or craft room, the hour after you get home, while you are working on a hobby, or in the car commuting.  Intentionally set a place and time aside to just be.

Recognize problems at home, changes in relationships, dark thoughts, exaggerated  “arousal and reactivity” (or jumpy-ness), changes in habits with sleeping-eating-drinking-substances-working, flashes of anger, having a harder time “getting over it”, Isolating, suppressing emotions, etc. , as a symptom of an injury.  Self blame, self pity, withdrawal and despair will not fix this. 

Watch our for the most sensitive:  It is estimated that 10 million children will experience trauma of some sort in a given year.  Watch out for them, especially with the many images of various disasters.  Many grown ups can struggle too.  The ones most at risk may be the ones who say, “that can’t happen to me.”

Get help, preferably before you need it:  Develop a healthy circle of friends who listen; pastors, peers, counselors, and chaplains.  Al-Anon, AA and other programs can help where appropriate.    Get help for the entire family!  Ask your health insurance provider about their Employee Assistance Program and call the confidential 800 number.  STS is an injury from outside!   This is not weakness-even the  tough boys and girls can get hurt from stress trauma.

Education and Training: Seek our Crisis Intervention and Trauma Prevention Training; especially if you at risk for distress.  Medical Pro’s and Responders should have a team at your facility or department.

Find a way to take a break:  There are ways to take a few days or find respite care for your loved ones.  If your loved one is in Hospice Care-Ask them for resources!  I know they are hard to find!

Don’t forget God: I am a Christian and am constantly surprised when God is left out of a crisis, sometimes by me.  Medical protocols are great but only part of your healing.  My faith in Jesus Christ has protected and healed me more times than I will ever know .   If you are a Christian,  of another faith, or no faith at all, there is a spiritual element to healing that cannot be ignored.  Find you spiritual Center.  This is where healing begins

This only scratches the surface.  Be proactive if you are injured.  Be even more proactive if you are seeing this in your loved ones.

Google these key words for more information: secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, coping, self-care, Mental health supervision, compassion fatigue, Critical incident Stress Management

I would welcome your comments on resources and coping skills. 


a special thanks to the Federation of Fire Chaplains and Ann Balboni)

Children’s resources:

University of Kentucky Trauma Research :

PTSD Basics:

Management for Providers:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.