There may be a good chance that you or someone you know is trying to work through symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) or Compassion Fatigue without having any idea what either of the terms mean. And if you are already aware that you experience either STS or Compassion Fatigue and are struggling to find a way to cope, you are not alone.
Many healthcare workers, caregivers, rights activists, lightworkers, empaths and intuitives experience symptoms of either or both Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue as a side-effect of their work or engagements.
If you are not sure why you might be experiencing feelings of distress or trauma, hopefully you will find this information to be helpful towards guiding your emotional compass in a direction that feels more healthy and stable consistently.
Sometimes the terms Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue are used interchangeably. Some professionals agree however, that the two terms should be separated based on the severity and varying degrees of stress symptoms. This article is not meant to diagnose or treat symptoms. Please contact a licensed mental healthcare professional with concerns about diagnosis.
What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?
Secondary Traumatic Stress is a lasting or even recurring emotional anguish that results when an individual learns about the firsthand experiences of another person or animal’s traumatic experience. The experience of stress, trauma or an onset of PTSD symptoms can be triggered from:
- indirect exposure to traumatic material.
- empathetic engagement with someone who has been traumatized.
- repeated exposure to either of the above.
Symptoms can also be triggered from exposure to violence in entertainment. For example, exposure to successive images of violence and victimization from incidents happening in the news media, and from experiencing traumatic scenes in TV shows, movies and videos.
You do not have to be working in a particular industry to experience symptoms. However, the following people can potentially be at higher risk for developing them:
Nurses, emergency hotline workers, child welfare workers, abuse counselors, animal welfare activists, journalists, photographers, Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP’s), energy healers, mediums and animal communicators and especially empaths.
In fact, if you actively engage in activities promoting compassionate or heart-based living, or that encourages interaction with the sick, dying, the less fortunate, and victims of trauma (people and animals) even by way of healing and prayer, you are probably just as likely to develop symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress over time from repeated indirect exposure to violence and trauma as a healthcare worker is.
What are the Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress?
Some symptoms include but are not limited to persistent feelings of the following, resulting from one or more of the triggers listed above: victimization/violation, heartbreak, restlessness, hopelessness, despair, anxiety, grief, shame, emptiness, survival guilt, hyper-vigilance, physical pain, heart palpitations, self-medicating with food/alcohol/other, emotional swings, emotional breakdowns, intrusive thoughts, irrational fear, ruminating or repeatedly re-living the story of the traumatic experience(s).
It is common for people who are anguishing with Secondary Traumatic Stress to invalidate or hide their feelings because a traumatic incident affecting them didn’t happen directly to them. They can have anxiety about their feelings because their career is not related to healthcare or community service. A person can even become fixated on not wanting to forget the pain so that the trauma victim can. They can also feel embarrassed or ashamed to be “an emotional wreck over someone else’s problems.”
How is Compassion Fatigue Different?
Compassion Fatigue can arguably be described as a stage of trying to cope with repeated exposure to trauma. It can show up as: Emotionally disengaging, feeling “numb” or experiencing an inability to empathize or sympathize, nurture or emotionally connect to a person who has experienced physical or emotional trauma and is in need of care.
In this stage of attempting to cope, common responses may include: irritability, outbursts of anger or rage, difficulty trusting, needing to control, avoidance, isolation, stoicism, denial, communicating with resentment, cynicism or sarcasm.
12 Therapeutic Strategies for Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress
- Reach out to others. You are not alone. You can encourage healing for someone else experiencing STS/CF.
- Journal. Write out your thoughts and emotional experiences in detail. Print them out and ceremoniously burn them to symbolically let it all go.
- Music or Art Therapy works. Either listen to uplifting or inspiring music, or draw what you feel needs to come through on paper.
- Exercise. Walk, jog, stretch. This encourages the physical body to feel productive and empowered!
- Commit to saying your Affirmations and/or Mantras. This can help overwrite negative thought patterns with positive ones.
- Meditate/Pray for peace. Allow the mind to focus on Peace in a tranquil and therapeutic setting.
- Hug more. Practice giving and receiving hugs more often. A positive experience connecting with humans and animals is helpful.
- Humor heals. Laughter is wonderful medicine. It releases tension and stress from the body. So, watch your favorite comedy again!
- Have a good cry. Because a good release can be so liberating!
- Search positive imagery. Seek out thoughtful quotes, images of sunshine, your favorite animals and scenes in nature.
- Restrict your exposure to violence. Take a break from watching dramatic TV shows, news, reading certain books and other media.
- Take care of your insides. Restrict stimulants. Eat fresh foods. Drink plenty of water, too!
Self-Care is an Essential
Self-care is essential, especially when it comes to healing through trauma. While the mental state is going through so much, the body will also respond to stress in its own ways. The mind, body and spirit must work together in order to feel a sense of thriving and safety. Therefore, place importance on giving care to all three areas rather than one alone. This will reinforce all-around good emotional health.
If Secondary Traumatic Stress or Compassion Fatigue is something you are experiencing, it is not wrong to feel what you are feeling. You’re reacting and responding to traumatizing stimulus. Take time to grieve if it seems like you need to. Yet, do as much as you can to limit the negative stimulus so as to further encourage and nurture healing.
A person suffering from Secondary Traumatic Stress or Compassion Fatigue can eventually become severely depressed, experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm. In addition, without help they can develop other serious debilitating disorders. If you are unsure about how to cope, please reach out. Because support is available so that you can heal and work towards feeling emotionally stable again.