You may not have experienced trauma like your friends, but being in the same unit or working with others that have PTSD can cause you do develop secondary PTSD from their trauma.
Around half of psychotherapists who treat patients with symptoms of post-traumatic stress might develop symptoms of secondary trauma.
Psychotherapists aren’t the only ones vulnerable to secondary PTSD, though. Anyone with constant exposure to such patients can develop the same symptoms.
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Healthcare and social workers can develop symptoms that mimic their clients’ or patients’. Journalists and lawyers are vulnerable, too. Even regular people who are taking care of a loved one with PTSD are susceptible.
If you’re living with or helping someone with PTSD, you have a risk of experiencing secondary trauma. Find out the warning signs below, but before that, let’s learn the basics about secondary PTSD.
What is Secondary PTSD?
Secondary traumatic stress is the development of symptoms that mimic those of people with PTSD. This happens even without having direct involvement with the traumatic event. The traumatic event for the patient can become a second-hand traumatic event for the therapist.
To better understand STS (Secondary Traumatic Stress), let’s first learn what PTSD means.
What is PTSD
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It develops in those who have experienced an event that caused fear, helplessness, or other emotional pains.
Examples of such events are car accidents, natural disasters, war, and so on. It may also occur in people who have gone through abuse and violence.
You may have experienced such events first-hand or as a witness. Witnessing death or serious injuries can become a traumatic memory for people.
A traumatic event doesn’t have to be dangerous, as well. The sudden death of a loved one, for instance, is enough to cause PTSD. We have even helped veterans that experienced PTSD because they didn’t experience the expected battles and fights for which they enlisted.
PTSD develops around three months after the traumatic event or even longer. For some, it can appear in a year or so. If symptoms appear right after the event, it might be an acute stress disorder.
In simple terms, having PTSD is like re-experiencing the trauma again and again. It’s normal to feel distressed during the event, but PTSD makes you feel in distress even when you’re out of the danger.
Symptoms of PTSD
People with PTSD usually experience flashbacks, hallucinations, or nightmares. This forces them to relive their trauma. If something reminds them of the event, like the date or a certain smell, they may also feel distressed.
They also avoid anything that might remind them, including people, places, and situations. Their brain might even block out the memory itself.
As a coping mechanism, they can develop a negative mood and behavior. They may also become numb and apathetic.
Increased arousal is also a common symptom. Patients become jumpy, irritated, and angered easily. People with PTSD will probably have trouble concentrating and falling asleep.
All of these symptoms can come and go to various degrees. Many men and women that were in intense fire-fights now lead normal lives with a PTSD flare-up only happening occaisionally.
Doctors will need details about all re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal, and mood symptoms to diagnose a person with PTSD. If you keep a journal of when your times were the worst, show that record to your doctor.
Depending on the severity of these symptoms, they may interfere with daily life. It may come to the point that a veteran can no longer perform his or her usual activities. At this point, you are looking at getting TDIU (Total Disability – Individual Unemployability) VA benefits for PTSD.
How to get TDIU for PTSD from the VA according to a veterans disability lawyer:
Why is PTSD Contagious?
PTSD is a serious disorder. Still, it’s understandable for people who went through traumatic events to develop it. Why do other people with no first-hand accounts of the event develop it?
It may boil down to the brain’s tendency to overlap real and imagined experiences. The region in the brain that processes visual imagery has a major overlap with the region processing imagined visual experiences.
The brain may have a hard time distinguishing between the images that come from our eyes and the images from our imagination.
This may lead to a memory “transfer,” causing the other person to experience the memories as if they are their own.
Another potential factor in secondary trauma is empathy. It’s the ability to place oneself in the position of another. In this way, they can understand and even feel what the other person is experiencing.
Highly empathetic people, therefore, can go into the frame of mind of people with PTSD. This may leave them to develop PTSD of their own, as if they experienced the event themselves.
The lack of emotional distance may also contribute. The wives of veterans, for example, have strong emotional connections with their spouses. They may also internalize the traumatic experience of their husbands.
Signs of Secondary Trauma
Secondary trauma is no better than any type of PTSD. It’s not less significant, nor is it easier to treat.
In some cases, it may even be harder to diagnose. So often in therapy and diagnosis, the focus is on the people who have experienced trauma but not the ones who care for them.
Despite that, if you know someone who helps with people with PTSD, you should watch out for signs they’re developing secondary trauma. We must identify it right away so they, too, can receive care. Check out what kinds of symptoms to look out for below.
Emotional Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress
Like in PTSD, STS presents itself mainly through emotional and psychological symptoms. You may feel irritable or angry at no one or nothing in particular. Some people also lash out at small things, being unable to control their emotions.
Being jumpy is a common trait among patients with PTSD and people with STS. At the same time, they may feel disconnected from their emotions and/or body.
The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness also burden many people with either condition. Empathetic people may find themselves having less empathy for those around them. They may instead feel insensitive or apathetic to their surroundings. This may also show up as a sense of “burn out” with their work.
Depression may be the most common psychological symptom. It might be the most destructive, too.
Depression, or depressive disorder, can have a huge effect on the daily lives of sufferers, and it may bring about additional symptoms that they’ll have to deal with, too. It may even lead to suicidal thoughts.
Re-experiencing trauma you’ve never experienced is a valid problem. Like we said above, actual and imagined experiences are almost indistinguishable. You may see traumatic “memories” in your nightmares, hallucinations, or flashbacks.
STS may also affect the thought process of people. For instance, you may question your identity, beliefs, and frame of reference. You may feel you have lost control, trust, safety, and esteem.
You may also have difficulty concentrating and deciding. You may instead think about the experiences or trauma of others.
Self-blame is also a symptom, and so is guilt. Some people may blame themselves for the lack of action on their part (which is most often than not untrue). People with a better situation than the victim might feel guilty, too.
The VA Rating formula for mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, and other mental health disorders is explained by one of our veterans’ disability lawyers in this video:
Behavioral Symptoms of Secondary Trauma
People with secondary trauma will also develop avoidance symptoms. They may avoid certain subjects, places, and people the same way patients with PTSD do. Wives of veterans, for instance, may avoid topics reminding them of the things their husbands have told them about.
If you’re experiencing some behavioral changes, these may be symptoms of STS. Examples are avoiding certain people or stuff you enjoyed doing before. You may even turn to alcohol and drugs as a way of coping.
Soon, your problems will spill into other areas of your life. You may watch excessive TV on late nights and early mornings. It may also affect your relationships, even those outside the traumatic event.
Your job might also take a hit from your behavioral issues. Your work may get compromised. You may feel helpless in front of problems arising in your workplace.
Physical Symptoms of Secondary PTSD
Secondary PTSD might also have effects on one’s physical being. Exhaustion, headaches, and insomnia might be the most common physical effects of STS. However, they’re too general in that they may be due to anything else.
You can also develop rashes and breakouts in response to stress. Heart palpitations and an irritable bowel might also show up as symptoms. You may experience physical pain, as well, especially in your neck and back.
Having STS might also increase your susceptibility to illnesses. And, you may develop hypochondria along with it.
It’s an anxiety disorder in which you worry too much about having serious illnesses. It’s a serious condition that’s hard to treat.
That said, physical symptoms alone won’t characterize STS. Like PTSD, you’ll need to exhibit other symptoms, such as avoidance and arousal symptoms.
How to Differentiate Secondary Trauma
In the healthcare world, people often interchange secondary trauma with other terms like compassion fatigue, job burnout, and vicarious trauma. While some definitions may overlap, there are some nuanced differences between the four.
The onset of secondary trauma is sudden and unexpected. On the other hand, vicarious trauma accumulates over time.
It results from the cumulative exposure to other people’s trauma. It’s a transformation of the person’s inner experience.
They begin to mirror the effects of the trauma on the victims. This leads to a shift in the cognitive schemas about the world, themselves, and others.
Vicarious trauma is different in that it only displays one characteristic of PTSD. People with VT will have a huge negative change in their feelings and beliefs. They don’t have re-experiencing, avoidance, and arousal symptoms.
Compassion fatigue not only refers to emotions but physical exhaustion, as well. It’s characterized by the diminished capability to empathize and feel compassion.
While people with high levels of empathy are vulnerable, other people can also develop it. Empathy is the ability to “share” the feelings of others. As such, people may feel burdened by the suffering, causing exhaustion.
Many incorrectly refer to compassion fatigue as secondary trauma because of this definition. However, the former encompasses a broader demographic.
While STS only affects those dealing with people with PTSD, compassion fatigue can affect anyone. The people they associate with may not have PTSD.
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Burnout isn’t a form of trauma. It relates only to the job itself, not the patients nor the experiences of the patients.
It’s not a medical diagnosis either, but it may be due to a medical issue, like depression. Nonetheless, it impacts the worker’s mental, emotional, and physical state.
Prolonged or repeated stress in the workplace can cause job burnout. It may also come from a lack of accomplishment.
Burnouts aren’t restricted inside the workplace, however. It can also happen in school, parenting, or relationships. For instance, the stress in keeping up with assignments can lead to burnout, as does the stress in caring for a sick loved one.
Preventing and/or Treating Secondary Trauma
Preventing secondary trauma can be as easy as staying away from people with PTSD. That’s easier said than done, however. Many times, that isn’t even an option.
For healthcare workers, the best thing you can do is to leave work at work. This is easier said than done. Still, doing something like talking with coworkers can have a huge beneficial effect.
For people living with veterans, getting a VA claim may help them deal with their STS and the veteran’s PTSD. Around 11 to 20% of veterans develop this condition. This leads to several strained relationships, suicides, and other serious consequences.
Dealing with it is hard enough for them and their families; secondary trauma is another thing. You may make a veteran’s claim for added help.
For everyone, leading a healthy lifestyle can do wonders in keeping your mental and psychological health in check. Exercise, eat healthy food, and get enough sleep each night.
Find a hobby that allows for creative expression and do things that are enjoyable to you. Ask the advice and help of spiritual leaders or other veteran’s organizations in your community.
Don’t isolate yourself. It will only increase your risk of developing secondary trauma. Connect with your community and keep your friends close.
Don’t hesitate to take breaks to take care of yourself. You come first before other people, but you can also find help from other people.
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Seek Help Early
When you”re overwhelmed by negative emotions, it’s ok to seek out help and support. Seek therapy or talk to other people that can unburden you. Finding the right support group is crucial for secondary trauma.
For VA claims, talk to a reputable lawyer. Contact us for veteran PTSD claims today.