Lifeskills Mental Health Blog

Secondary Trauma: Absorbing the Pain of Your Loved One

Secondary Trauma: Absorbing the Pain of Your Loved One

Experiencing a traumatic event is enough to leave anyone shaken but sometimes that shaken feeling sticks around and develops into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a truly debilitating mental health disorder that most people have heard of. But what about secondary trauma?

Surviving a traumatic event directly leaves a lasting impact, however, holding space for a loved one who experienced a traumatic event also has its effects. This is true for spouses, parents, and extended family members as well as educators, social workers, and other support professionals.

This is especially true for those with an LGBTQ+ loved one. Research shows that people who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community are significantly more likely to experience a traumatic event. The trauma these individuals go through may leave a lasting impact as well as potentially trigger mental health issues.

If you have an LGBTQ+ loved one, your chances of experiencing secondary trauma increase. And though they’re the person who experienced the initial trauma, your secondary trauma is still important to address. The secondary trauma that comes from absorbing the pain of your LGBTQ+ loved one is a valid concern.

Trauma and the LGBTQ+ Community

The shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016 sent waves of grief throughout the community and its allies. This event shined a haunting light on the very real fears that many LGBTQ+ individuals live with every day as individuals in this community are likely to experience at least one hate crime during their lives.

Direct acts of hate are only one cause of the traumatic events that LGBTQ+ individuals often experience. The range of life events they experience may contribute to a traumatic response as well. Too many people lose family members and friends after coming out as their true, authentic selves. Religion is also commonly used as a tool of hate toward LGBTQ+ individuals.

Other traumas that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience include bullying, rejection, societal stigma, harassment, physical or sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, grief, loss, and more. With all the potential trauma an LGBTQ+ individual may experience during their life, the chance of developing secondary trauma from an LGBTQ+ loved one is all too possible.

What is Secondary Trauma?

Approximately 70% of adults experience at least some type of traumatic event in their life, and more than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by the time they turn 16. These experiences leave a lasting impact on people and sometimes manifest in more serious conditions, like PTSD, with severe side effects.

Traumatic events not only affect the person who experiences them directly but also the people who care about them. Hearing about these traumatic events second-hand can also have an incredible impact. Someone who develops emotional distress because of hearing about another person’s trauma is experiencing what’s called secondary trauma.

Also called compassion fatigue or vicarious traumatization, secondary trauma is not caused by an inability to cope. It may seem less intense than experiencing trauma firsthand, but secondary trauma comes with its own set of challenges to overcome. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for feeling the impact of your loved one’s trauma; it’s just as important to understand what you’re experiencing.

Professionals who work with children or adolescents are particularly vulnerable to developing secondary trauma. Therapists, social workers, case managers, child welfare workers, and other professionals hear about traumas like abuse, violence, or neglect every day. And when their class or caseload includes young LBGTQ+ individuals, the stories they hear every day may be especially disheartening.

Signs You May Be Experiencing Secondary Trauma

Are you wondering whether you’re experiencing secondary trauma? If you have an LGBTQ+ loved one, or you work with individuals who endure trauma, you may be at risk. Regular indirect exposure to trauma can take a serious emotional toll and lead to difficulties in daily life.

Mental health professionals have long recognized the reality of secondary trauma, but more people are learning about and recognizing the impact of secondary trauma. Learning the signs of secondary trauma will help you notice when you or someone else reaches a breaking point.

Signs of secondary trauma fall into one of three categories: physical, behavioral, and psychological. There’s plenty of overlap between the three categories so you may experience symptoms from only one or two categories, or you might notice extensive symptoms from all three.

Physical Signs:

  • Headaches

  • Insomnia

  • Exhaustion

  • Rashes or breakouts

  • Sore neck or back muscles

  • Weakened immune system

  • Gastrointestinal distress

  • Teeth grinding or jaw clenching

  • Heart palpitations

Behavioral Signs:

  • Avoiding students, clients, patients, etc.

  • Short temper, irritability, or anger at work or home

  • Increased negativity or gossip

  • Avoiding friends or family members

  • Binge-watching television or movies after work

  • Increasing drug or alcohol use

  • Not responding to calls or texts

  • Limiting socialization

  • Trouble with decision making

  • Problems in personal relationships

  • Difficulties with intimacy or sex

  • Thinking about quitting work

Psychological Signs:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Difficulties sleeping

  • Emotional exhaustion

  • Negative self-image

  • Changes in appetite (restricting or binge eating)

  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or cynical

  • Extreme sense of guilt

  • Feeling little or no sympathy or empathy for clients, friends, or family members

  • Dreading going to work or working with particular students or clients

  • Losing enjoyment or appreciation for work

  • Depersonalization or dissociation

  • Heightened anxiety or fears

  • Intrusive mental imagery

  • Difficulties separating personal and professional life

How to Overcome Secondary Trauma

Some secondary trauma symptoms can have a significant negative impact on both your professional and personal life. Overcoming secondary trauma is crucial not only to continue being a source of support for the individuals in your life who have experienced trauma but also for your own well-being. Provided below are a few ways you can work through your secondary trauma.

Find Your Own Space For Support

Trying to be there for someone who’s experienced trauma while ignoring the signs of your secondary trauma won’t work. You can’t fill from an empty cup. There’s a reason why so many therapists have a therapist. Unless you’re taking steps to find support, you won’t be able to support anyone else in your life.

Don’t Neglect Self-Care

You shouldn’t use emotional exhaustion as a reason to neglect self-care. It’s vital to have a few things you do to care for yourself at the end of the day. These practices can include exercising, reading, cooking, meditating, etc. There are no requirements for your self-care other than selecting activities that you enjoy.

Surround Yourself With Loved Ones

It’s important to surround yourself with people who know the weight you’re carrying. Whether they understand from personal experience or not, having people who can support you at the end of the day is a must. Trying to overcome secondary trauma alone is a losing battle; don’t neglect the power of letting those closest to you support you on your path to peace.

Specialized Treatment for Trauma at Lifeskills South Florida

Overcoming trauma is not a one-way street. Working with victims of trauma is an intricate and ongoing process, requiring a full continuum of care. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to working with individuals who survived trauma. Effective treatment requires an individual assessment and tailored approach for each person who needs help.

At Lifeskills, we recognize the unique needs of people working through trauma. We offer a trauma-specific therapy treatment program for anyone struggling with post-traumatic stress responses. Our programs are designed to provide clients with space to safely process all trauma-related issues and any resulting symptoms or conditions.

We offer a Trauma Treatment Pathway which includes therapies like cognitive processing therapy (CPT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and seeking safety. If you or a loved one are battling a trauma-related disorder, Lifeskills is here to help. Fill out our contact form or call us at 833.484.1655 to learn more about our programs today.







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