Trauma is a slippery friend. Sometimes, it’s clear and easy to recognize. And sometimes, we don’t realize that the symptoms we are experience are symptoms of trauma at all.

When people feel “burnout,” they are often struggling with secondary trauma and the compassion fatigue that goes along with that. In all kinds of helping professions, or even helping friendships/relationships, the helping, in and of itself, can be traumatizing.

Helping professions come in lots of different forms: legal, medical, mental health, social services, first responders, police, paramedics, firefighters, and some you may not expect. Sometimes, people don’t realize the degree to which they experience secondary trauma in their work. When we do, we often overlook addressing the trauma we experience when we help others.

Before I was a therapist, I worked on a TV show called Third Watch about first responders in New York. My job as a researcher, and eventually as a writer, was to interview paramedics, firefighters and police officers about their stories. I have never worked in any of those professions but as a result of my work, I am overly reactive when my kids run through driveways — I have heard so many stories about children being hit by cars backing out that I can see it happen every time my kids run down the street.

The level of my anxiety is not proportionate to my response and this is in part the result of secondary trauma that I experienced working on a TV show.

Seeing or hearing about someone endure physical abuse, psychological abuse or traumatic life experiences or accidents can leave helpers with very real trauma symptoms. Helpers may feel emotional exhaustion, ruminating and/or anxious or fearful thoughts, increased startle response, irritability, trouble concentrating, self-destructive escape behaviors like drinking too much, abusing substances, or over-eating, and sometimes even flashbacks of events that they weren’t there to witness.

Another common trauma symptom that people with secondary trauma often report is compassion fatigue or burnout. They feel like they just don’t want to do it anymore or complete apathy toward people they would typically feel enormous compassion toward. They may have difficulty showing up emotionally in their own personal relationships as well. It’s hard to shut down emotionally in only one capacity — we tend to do it across the board.

If you work in a profession where you are exposed to trauma, secondary trauma may seem unavoidable and to some extent, that may be true. However, we can minimize the impact of secondary trauma on our personal lives and relationships. The most critical component in addressing secondary trauma is self-care. Self-care looks different for different people and if you don’t know what this looks like for you, talking to a therapist can help. In addition to self-care, it’s important to develop healthy coping skills for managing symptoms and creating healthy boundaries.

The danger of burnout and compassion fatigue is the impact it can have in our own families, friendships and relationships when we don’t address it adequately. I see this often in my work with first responders. People may think that they are shielding their loved ones by not talking about it but the emotional distance that secondary trauma creates in the absence of communication can leave loved ones feeling lonely and abandoned.

And so often, helpers down play their own secondary trauma because it feels inconsequential compared to what the person we are helping as endured. Apples and oranges. Having to help someone go through traumatic life events is very different than going through them. It’s not fair to compare them. They are different experiences and different kinds of trauma altogether.

If you or someone you know is struggling with burnout, compassion fatigue or secondary trauma, therapy can help. At Beach Cities Psychotherapy, we help people navigate all kinds of trauma and develop the tools necessary to move forward.

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