Do You Have Secondary Traumatic Stress? Click for answers.

Do You Have Secondary Traumatic Stress?

“We have an 11 year old in need of a foster placement…and she’s 6 months pregnant.”

“We are looking for a foster home for 11 month old twins. You would be their 8th placement.”

“We need someone to go to the emergency room and pick up a 6 year old girl who was sexually abused.”

“We have a baby waiting at the hospital with 4 broken bones and a concussion. Will you take her?”

As foster parents, we received many phone calls like these. The stories of children who had been abused, neglected, and traumatized seemed never-ending.

Someone always needed more of us.

After we had been foster parents for about 6 months, I began to experience terrible stomach pains.

I tried changing my diet, but it didn’t help. I tried various over the counter medications, to no effect. Finally in desperation I went to see my doctor.

She found nothing physically wrong.

I knew I was under a great deal of stress as a foster parent, and we talked about self-care all the time in support groups and with our supervisors. My husband and I attempted to get respite (not an easy task) but seemed somehow almost wrong to focus on myself.

Compared to what these children were going through, facing life and death illness, injury, abuse, and trauma, who was I to complain?

Who was I? I was a traumatized foster mom.

What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

According to the National Child Trauma Stress Network:

Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

All of us experience secondary trauma at times. Just listening to stories on the news and of family and friends can result in traumatic stress. Due to our sinful world, trauma is around us all the time.

If you are in a service industry of any type (nurse, doctor, firefighter, therapist, teacher), have a special needs child, work with individuals with high needs, are in church or missions ministry, please recognize that you are dealing with secondary trauma on a regular basis.

Secondary traumatic stress, sometime called Secondary PTSD although this is not an official diagnosis, is (again according to the National Child Trauma Stress Network):

Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.

People with secondary trauma, or Secondary PTSD, experience some of the same symptoms as the person who went through the original trauma.

Think about it. As parents of a special needs child, you see your child go through endless tests and medical procedures. Wouldn’t you do anything to take his or her place? This is traumatic.

As a foster parent, teacher, pastor, or social worker, hearing stories day after day of abuse is traumatic. This depletes the best of us.

Secondary PTSD was first recognized in wives of soldiers who were diagnosed with PTSD. As a parent who is living with a child with PTSD, I can tell you this makes total sense. When you live with someone who is constantly hyper-vigilant, and you never know when the next crisis is going to blow, you become hyper-vigilant yourself. Years of this type of life takes a heavy toll.

Compassion Fatigue is another name for this type of secondary trauma, often considered a more mild form of caregiver burn-out.

Signs of Secondary Trauma

According to, signs to be aware of are:

Normal symptoms present in an individual include:

• Excessive blaming

• Bottled up emotions

• Isolation from others

• Receives unusual amount of complaints from others

• Voices excessive complaints about administrative functions

• Substance abuse used to mask feelings

• Compulsive behaviors such as overspending, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions

• Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)

• Legal problems, indebtedness

• Reoccurrence of nightmares and flashbacks to traumatic event

• Chronic physical ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds

• Apathy, sad, no longer finds activities pleasurable

• Difficulty concentrating

• Mentally and physically tired

• Preoccupied

• In denial about problems

In retrospect, there is no question that both my husband and I have dealt with secondary traumatic stress from our time as foster parents, adoptive parents, parents of special needs children, and years of ministry. We are each learning to step back and take better care of ourselves. This is not an easy learning process, but we are both working on it.

Help for Secondary Trauma

1. Recognition is the first, most important step.

During my years as a foster parent, I knew self-care was important. Yet while I was in the middle of it, I didn’t understand the deep level of depletion I experienced. Taking better care of myself did not seem possible. I had 100 excuses why I could not take time away from my family and children in order to care for myself.

When I started therapy and lost 100 lb pounds, I gained a whole new perspective. (Read my weight loss story here.)

2. Have compassion for yourself.

Secondary trauma is no joke. Have more compassion for yourself and the difficulty of what you are do and experience. Don’t make comparisons like, “Other people have it worse,” or “It’s not that bad.” Hard is hard is hard. YOU CANNOT AND DO NOT HAVE TO DO IT ALL.

3. Seek help.

Check out the resources below. See your doctor. An online support group of people who “get it” is a lifesaver.

4. Appreciate compassion satisfaction.

Compassion satisfaction is the joy we receive in taking care of others. This is good. Take pleasure in the fact that you are a blessing and changing the lives of others in a significant way. Savor the little moments.

Feel free to send me an email [email protected] if you want to talk more. I have dealt with secondary trauma for years, and I understand.

Do You Have Secondary Traumatic Stress? Click here for Answers.

The Hope Toolbox

hope for depression

Throughout this series, each of us is creating My Hope Toolbox, your own personal list of resources you can use for the bad days. Whether it’s go for a run, listen to music, or sit in the sunshine, we all need activities we know will help move us toward healing, even when we don’t FEEL like doing them.

What will you add to your Hope Toolbox today?

Today’s Bible Memory Verse: 

“Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue…”

Isaiah 35:4

Today’s Journaling Prompt:

Are you dealing with secondary trauma that needs to be addressed? Be compassionate with yourself.

Helpful Resources:

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project — VERY GOOD! Has several self-assessment quizzes online — Self-assessment tool, especially for those who work in service jobs, excellent resource!

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Secondary Traumatic Stress

Her View From Home: My Struggle with PTSD

Blooming With Joy: 8 Practical Steps on How to Reduce Stress

Equipping Godly Women: How to Respond When God Allows Trauma

Traces of Faith: A Traditional Tragedy

Strength of a Warrior: PTSD and the Brain

Marching to a Different Drummer: Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Our PTSD Story

The Messy Mrs.: The Belly of the Beast

Anna Smit: Love is Holding All Things Together in Him

A Closer Walk: Hearing God in Our Depression

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Understanding Kids with Trauma History

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