What is Secondary Trauma and are you experiencing this?

   Parenting in and of itself is hard. Really hard. Parenting a child with a trauma history is an entirely different arena of parenting. Hard does nothing to encompass the weight and depth of this type of parenting. Many of us start to sound like navy seals using terms like, “living in the trenches”. We often can only relate to parents sharing similar experiences and like soldiers sharing war stories we find camaraderie in commiserating with one another about our latest crisis or struggles. Often we are shell-shocked and at a loss for what has happened to our high hopes for what was supposed to be a happy home. It may seem the chaos erupting under our roof, or worse, in embarrassing public outburst, are like nothing happening in in other, “normal” families. You may retreat in isolation, despair, or defeat. If this seems to be striking a nerve you could be suffering from secondary trauma, sometimes called compassion fatigue.

Often we are so focused on the healing of our children, or trying to hang on to some semblance of sanity, that we do not note the effects that are happening to ourselves until it is too late. Much like the flight attendant cautioning us to put our own oxygen mask on first, take a moment to check in on yourself and make sure you are not burning yourself out as a trauma mama or papa.

What is “trauma exposure”? It is exposure to the suffering of others that takes a toll on us personally. It is when an external trauma becomes an internal reality. The pain around us begins to change our physiological and psychological responses. When you care for others with heart wide open, what you are exposed to is being taken into your body and held on to.

What are the Signs?

    1. Feeling helpless and hopeless- You may start thinking, ” why am I even getting out of bed?”
    2. A sense that you can never do enough
    3. Hypervigilance- an attempt to restore safety and prevent further victimization by anticipating and recognizing everything as a potential threat and acting accordingly. Everything feels exaggerated, significant, and dangerous. You may feel frozen in a state of hyperarousal all the time-lacking the ability to balance your own healing or focus.
    4. Diminished Creativity- Trauma exposure may have you craving more structure and less creativity. You may think, “when was the last time I had an original thought?”
    5. Inability to Embrace Complexity- you may feel an urgency to choose sides. Everything feels like it must be right/wrong, good/bad. “No” becomes your standard response.
    6. Minimizing- you may trivialize your current situation. This is when you have become too saturated and emmersed in trauma that you cannot possibly take in new information- you may feel you are “at the breaking point.”
    7. Chronic Exhaustion/Physical Ailments-feeling fatigued in every cell of your being -bone-tired, soul-tired, heart-tired. the body keeps the score- you may take on back pain, migraines, body aches, clinical depression, high blood pressure, stress induced diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome
    8. Inability to listen/deliberate avoidance- this is when you cut yourself off from friends, family, etc because everything seems to overwhelming or they would not understand you or what you are going through- ISOLATION
    9. Dissociative Moments- something suddenly unhinges inside you. You may experience a biological freeze reaction in which you have absent mind, or blank stares. It is a cutting off of your internal experience in order to guard against sensations and emotions that could overhwelm your system.
    10. Sense of Persecution- the feeling of not having any capacity to influence any meaningful outcome
    11. Guilt- this is an interruption to our ability to take in and be present. It undermines authentic connection as well
    12. Fear- lack of ability to process our experiences, therefore it begins to occupy this space inside of us
    13. Anger and Cynicism- intense feelings we do not know how to manage.  In the book, “The Body Keeps the Score” this is described as , “If an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love. As long as our mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, play, plan, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs.”
    14. Inability to Empathize/ Numbing- our own system is overwhelmed with incoming stimuli, and like a sponge completely saturated we are needing to be wrung out. When we are stuck with this state we shut down the mechanisms for registering feelings
    15. Addictions- we may begin to cross into unhealthy means of escape to block our experiences
    16. Grandiosity- an inflated sense of importance. We feel “who else can do this if I am not here.”


    This is just a short crash course in what secondary trauma looks like. To read more check out -“The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., and “Trauma Stewardship-an everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others” by Laura Van Dernoot Lipskey with Connie Burk