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Therapist Tips: Secondary Trauma Issues for Therapists

Therapists have a tough, emotionally-demanding job. Mental health professionals enter the field because they want to help others improve their lives, but this means that they work daily with people who are experiencing difficult life experiences. Unfortunately, secondary trauma is common among people who work in the mental health field.
Therapists need a high level of emotional resiliency to support their own mental health, prevent burnout, and offer the best possible services to their clients. If you’re a counselor, you should be aware of the risks of secondary trauma for therapists as well as the steps you can take to avoid it.

What Is Secondary Trauma?

Secondary trauma is stress that results from helping someone recover from a trauma or from hearing details about the trauma. When you work closely with someone who has gone through a trauma, it can be easy to put yourself in their shoes and imagine their pain. Secondary traumatic stress occurs when you have lasting emotional or psychological symptoms after absorbing information about another’s trauma.
This is not unique to therapists as anyone can feel vicariously traumatized from someone else’s experience. It’s more common among the helping professions, though, because these individuals regularly work with people who have had trauma.
Therapists also tend to be highly empathetic, which allows them to connect with their clients and better understand their emotions and experiences. However, this empathy can be harmful when it causes you to react strongly to a client’s traumatic experience.
Secondary trauma is especially prevalent in therapists who directly address trauma with their clients, but it can happen to any mental health professional. Trauma is incredibly common. It’s very likely that a client who seeks out therapy for a different goal will also address their trauma at some point in the process.
Secondary trauma is closely related to therapist burnout, but they’re not exactly the same. Burnout can result from a number of different stressors related to your career or workplace, but secondary trauma is a direct response to the information your client provides you. Secondary traumatic stress can lead to an overall feeling of burnout if it’s overlooked or ignored.

How to Prevent Secondary Trauma

You may regularly listen to others speak about their trauma, but secondary traumatic stress is preventable. With education, self-care, and self-reflection, you can reduce your risk of secondary trauma and protect your own mental health as you support your clients.

Here are six steps therapists can take to prevent secondary trauma:


1. Understand the risk factors.

Some therapists are at a greater risk of developing secondary PTSD than others. You can evaluate the risk factors to see how vulnerable you are to experiencing this trauma.
According to the Office for Victims of Crime, the following are risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing secondary trauma:
• History of trauma
• Social isolation
• Lack of experience or training
• Constant exposure to trauma
• Lack of supervision or support

2. Recognize the signs.

The symptoms of secondary trauma may develop gradually over time, so you might not recognize right away that you’re experiencing it. By learning about the signs, you have a better chance of identifying your secondary trauma and seeking help before it takes a major toll on your mental health.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of secondary traumatic stress in therapists:
• Difficulty talking about your emotions
• Being easily startled
• Difficulty sleeping
• Dreaming about your clients or their traumatic experiences
• Feeling trapped or hopeless
• Intrusive thoughts about your clients
• Frequent job changes
• Interpersonal problems at work
• Increased errors or perfectionism at work
Everyone’s experience with trauma is different, so this is not an exhaustive list of symptoms. If you notice unexplained changes in your emotional state, work performance, or self-care habits, secondary trauma may be an explanation.

3. Practice self-care.

One of the key symptoms of secondary PTSD in therapists is being fixated on your client’s trauma. To avoid ruminating, you should have a healthy balance of your work life and your personal life.
Establishing work-life boundaries is critical for therapists. By setting rules about when you’re available and when you do work tasks, you can make it easier to “turn off” your counselor brain. Some therapists stop answering emails once they get home, and some don’t answer non-emergency calls after dinner. Find boundaries that help you disconnect from work at the end of the day, and stick to them.
Self-care also involves taking care of your physical health. If you’re not getting enough sleep or eating nutritious foods, you can become more susceptible to stress and trauma. Make sure you have a healthy daily routine that feels good both physically and mentally.

4. Speak with other therapists.

No matter how long you’ve been in the field, supervision can be helpful. Other therapists understand what you’re going through, and they can give advice from their own experiences. They may offer insights that you hadn’t considered since they’re viewing the situation more objectively.
If you work on a team with other therapists, reach out to someone you trust to talk about your concerns. You could also find a local peer supervision group for therapists if you’re not able to speak with colleagues in your workplace.

5. Find educational opportunities.

Different states have different requirements for continuing education for therapists. Regardless of your state’s guidelines, furthering your education is always valuable.
If you don’t feel completely confident treating an issue one of your clients has, you may feel anxious and stressed about working with them. This can increase your risk of developing secondary trauma as you may not feel grounded during the session. Seek out classes, seminars, journals, or other resources covering the topics you know less about. By expanding your knowledge and skill set as a therapist, you can feel more prepared and less vulnerable.

6. Work with your own therapist.

Therapists can and should have their own counselors. Even if you’re an expert on mental health, it helps to consult with others when you’re experiencing emotional or psychological distress. By working through your past or present trauma in therapy, you can increase your resilience and avoid or reduce the effects of secondary traumatic stress.
Secondary trauma can be a serious challenge for therapists to overcome. It can affect both your personal life and your work in the mental health field. Although you chose your career to help others, one of the most important things therapists can do is take care of themselves. Make sure you’re checking in with yourself about your mental health and taking action to reduce your risk of secondary trauma.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy services to older adults facing depression, anxiety, trauma, and many other concerns. If you’re interested in therapy for yourself or an aging loved one, contact us today.

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