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Symptoms of Secondary Trauma and How it Contributes to Substance Abuse

Trauma is something that many people find to be inescapable. In fact, approximately 70% of all Americans experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. In other words, 223 million out of a total 328 million Americans have been impacted by trauma in some way, shape, or form. Some of the most commonly occurring traumatic events that seem to affect the most people in the country include experiences that involve natural disaster, loss of a loved one, divorce, severe physical injury, abandonment, and abuse. Trauma is certainly something that unwillingly becomes a part of many people’s lives, producing a series of negative effects and symptoms that compromise their wellbeing. But what about those who are displaying symptoms similar to that of someone who has undergone a traumatic event but has not been directly traumatized? Well, what they might be experiencing are symptoms of secondary trauma.

What is Secondary Trauma?

In the early 1990’s, secondary trauma became a term coined by trauma specialists Beth Stamm and Charles Figley to describe individuals who exhibited symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but were not directly exposed to a traumatic event. Stamm and Figley began noticing this most in service providers, such as healthcare professionals and mental health specialists. These individuals were at greater risk for displaying PTSD-like symptoms after encountering other individuals who were traumatized, especially if the exposure was repeated. Because those impacted were not a direct victim of a traumatic event, rather a bystander who suffered effects related to another person’s trauma, the term “secondary trauma” was coined.

Symptoms of Secondary Trauma

In instances where secondary trauma has occurred, those affected are definitely not looking to be impacted in a negative manner. Instead, it is usually the opposite — individuals are often trying to be of service to those who have experienced trauma. Think of first responders like firefighters and EMT’s, or emergency room nurses, social workers, and therapists. While these people may be engaging in work that they are passionate about, they are only human. The stress response we all possess can leave us susceptible to becoming traumatized, even if the event isn’t directly happening to us. Some real-life examples of situations where secondary trauma can develop include the following:

  • A social worker who bears witness to the impacts of an abused child
  • A paramedic who arrives on the scene of mass shooting
  • A firefighter who must retrieve a deceased individual after gaining control of a fire
  • An emergency room nurse who has worked during the height of the coronavirus pandemic

The main difference between traditional trauma and secondary trauma is that the individual experiencing secondary trauma is not witnessing these traumatic events occurring, rather dealing with the aftermath of it. The most common symptoms that those who experience secondary trauma exhibit include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Headaches
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Grief
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Disconnecting from their surroundings
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Gastrointestinal issues like heartburn
  • Loss of purpose
  • Addictive behaviors, such as drug or alcohol abuse

Someone who has been impacted by secondary trauma is at increased risk for experiencing further complications when it comes to their mental and physical wellbeing, as leaving these symptoms untreated can create more issues. One of the greatest risks linked to the symptoms of secondary trauma is the potential for substance abuse. 

Secondary Trauma and Substance Abuse 

Anytime anyone is dealing with the aftermath of trauma, life can quickly start feeling heavy, overwhelming, and too much to bear on a regular basis. Secondary trauma is complex in the sense that those who develop it were not part of the actual traumatic event, yet became involved in some capacity along the way. It is easy to correlate witnessing a fatal car crash to symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, but it is not always as simple to connect why a person is symptomatic of secondary trauma when they did not experience the event or events themselves. Studies show that those individuals who are experiencing the after effects of any type of trauma are at an increased risk for abusing drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. This is because being involved in a traumatic event in any capacity can create severe psychological, physical, and emotional issues that individuals want to quickly alleviate. Unfortunately, while this might seem like an easy fix, using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism is extremely unhealthy and can turn deadly. That is why seeking professional help as quickly as possible is ideal, so that those affected can safely and effectively manage their trauma in an appropriate way. 

Treating Symptoms of Secondary Trauma

One of the most effective ways to manage symptoms of secondary trauma is to work to prevent its effects. Those who work in jobs where trauma is likely to occur can benefit from being proactive by practicing yoga, focusing on self-awareness, maintaining a good work/life balance, and having trustworthy friends in their social circles. Those who are already experiencing the symptoms of secondary trauma can get help dealing with their symptoms by reaching out to a therapist or seeking more intensive professional care, depending on their personal situation. As with other forms of trauma, therapy is the most common resource utilized for those with symptoms of secondary trauma. This includes therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), group counseling, and individual psychotherapy. 

Addiction Treatment in California

If you or someone you love is grappling with symptoms of secondary trauma and/or a substance use disorder, reach out to us at Riviera Recovery right now. We understand the pain that you are likely feeling and want to help you move forward in the right direction.

So, do not let one more moment pass you by. Call us right now to learn more about the services we can provide to help you overcome your trauma and begin living a happy, healthier life.