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Signs and Symptoms of Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma

Help is Within Reach for Those Struggling with Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma occurs when a person starts showing similar symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being around someone who has experienced trauma firsthand. It is also commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue” among other names in the mental health community and literature. 

Who is at Risk for Secondary Trauma? 

Individuals who work closely with firsthand trauma survivors are most at risk for developing secondary trauma symptoms. Often, it is difficult to predict if a person will develop compassion fatigue until they have already begun interacting with the person who experienced the initial traumatic event. 

Some examples of individuals who might be at a higher risk for secondary trauma can include but are by no means limited to: 

  • Educators 
  • Social workers
  • Medical professionals 
  • Mental health professionals
  • Lawyers 
  • Law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders
  • Family members of the traumatized person
  • People who work with military personnel 

Getting Help for Secondary Trauma is Brave, Not Shameful

If you or a loved one is struggling with secondary trauma, there is absolutely no shame in seeking help. It is a normal part of personal or professional life for some individuals that spend time with survivors. Symptoms cannot be anticipated or planned for, but knowing what they are and identifying them early can enable you to seek treatment sooner. 

Sometimes, those who live with secondary trauma might feel that their own struggles are “less important” than the person who experienced the traumatic event firsthand. Others might feel that they are “weak” for feeling unable to be a fully supportive presence for the primary victim. These sentiments could not be further from the truth. 

Those who are living with secondary trauma are encouraged to seek help. Whether you simply need to vent to another person or are interested in exploring options for medication, there are a variety of treatment paths that you can take with professional guidance. 

Symptoms of Secondary Trauma 

If you are wondering if you are experiencing secondary trauma or want to know what to look for, here are some key symptoms provided by the Administration for Children & Families

Cognitive Symptoms

These symptoms may affect someone’s brain function. Cognitive indicators of secondary trauma most often include: 

  • A lowered level of concentration 
  • Feelings of general apathy
  • Adopting rigid thinking patterns
  • A sense of perfectionism 
  • The individual becomes preoccupied with trauma


Emotional symptoms of secondary trauma can include feelings of: 

  • Anger 
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness 
  • Numbness
  • Sadness

Behavioral Symptoms 

Known possible behavioral symptoms of secondary trauma are: 

  • Withdrawal from social and professional activities
  • Disturbed sleeping 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • A sense of hyper-vigilance
  • An elevated startle response 

Physical Symptoms

Beyond mental health symptoms, a person who experiences secondary trauma might also display some or all of these physical indicators: 

  • An increased heart rate 
  • Pain in the muscles or joints 
  • Immune system impairments 
  • Breathing difficulties 
  • Medical concerns that increase in severity 

What to Do if You Are Experiencing Symptoms of Secondary Trauma 

Anticipate Triggering Events as Much as Possible 

When you are able to identify potential triggers for your symptoms, you can more easily anticipate them and prepare to address them. Carefully consider how occurrences in your work life, home life, and social life can cause these feelings to intensify. 

Have a Self-Care Plan of Action 

If you start to experience emotional stress, what will you do to help yourself de-escalate? Identify a place to go or activity or ritual that you can engage in to help you re-center yourself. 

Invest Your Free Time in Doing What You Most Enjoy

Spend your free time actively engaging in activities that you love. This can not only boost your mood but also take your mind off of the traumatic emotions that you are working through. Some general ideas that you can consider include: 

  • Getting together with friends and family more often 
  • Engaging in physical activities like exercising, hiking, sports, etc. 
  • Pursuing creative hobbies and passions like music, painting, drawing, writing, etc.
  • Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga 
  • Taking a vacation, whether at home or far away

Get Help for Secondary Trauma Today 

As we stated before, there is absolutely no shame in seeking help for treating your symptoms of secondary trauma. Everyone experiences these feelings differently, and some people need help working through them. Deciding to take this important first step is brave and can help you lead a more fulfilling and resilient life in the wake of trauma. 

At Compassion Behavioral Health, we offer caring and comprehensive help to communities in South Florida. To learn more, contact us online or call us today at (844) 999-0874.