Understanding Secondary Trauma

Causes, consequences and change.

Witnessing traumatic events can have a profound impact on individuals, extending beyond the immediate victims. Secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, is a psychological phenomenon that affects bystanders who witness (and may be involved in some way during) traumatic events. This trauma can manifest in various ways, influencing the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the individual. In this article, we explore the origins, symptoms of secondary potential coping mechanisms of secondary trauma.

What is secondary trauma?

secondary traumaSecondary trauma arises from the empathetic connection witnesses form with the primary victims of a traumatic event. Whether it be a car accident, natural disaster, a violent crime, difficult childbirth or a tragic accident, observing someone else’s suffering can leave an indelible mark. It can also be the result of witnessing ongoing suffering in another, for example as a result of illness or abuse. The emotional investment made by the witness, coupled with the human instinct for empathy, creates a pathway for the experience of trauma even if the bystander was not harmed physically. It can emerge weeks, months or even longer after the event, causing feelings, thoughts and experiences as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Wider impacts

The effects of secondary these issues can ripple beyond the individual, impacting relationships with partners, children, family and work colleagues. Unhelpful attempts to cope (such as over-eating/under eating, increased alcohol intake or obsessive behaviours) can make things even more difficult. Other people such as friends and family can find it difficult to understand the feelings the bystander is going through, or themselves feel helpless to help. This can lead to increased conflict which can exacerbate the issue further.

If you have been experiencing the issues above for more than four weeks following witnessing a traumatic event, it may be you are experiencing PTSD via secondary trauma. If so, its easy to feel guilt or shame about your response to the event. However, it is important to remember that you are have a natural response to a terrible set of circumstance. Your body and mind may have become temporarily ‘stuck’ in the traumatic situation, and unable to move on.

How to heal from secondary trauma

Some people process the experience fully and heal given time –  however for others extra help is vital.  Such support can involve short or long term talking therapy, or approaches which carefully desensitise you to the memories (such as the Rewind Technique), allowing them to be worked through, and letting the mind and body move on. Whichever option is right for you, it is important to work with well qualified professionals – and it is fine to shop around and have initial discussions with several people before you commit.  There are also a number of charitable organisations which can help.

Sources of further information and support you can access now

PTSD UK: offers information on treatment options and support (including how to support others): ptsduk.org

Disaster action: Support for those involved in disasters: disasteraction.org.uk

ASSIST Trauma Care: Specialist trauma support: assisttraumacare.org.uk

Anxiety UK: Not trauma specific, but has a helpline(03444 775 774) or you can text for support (07537 416 905) (text), they also have advice and support at their website; anxietyuk.org.uk

If you would like to find out more about the Rewind technique (a single session intervention), please click here.