In 2010, PTSD day was established on June 27th, with June becoming PTSD awareness month in 2014. Many of our blogs and resources explore PTSD in relation to our warriors, however, it is also important to remember that those symptoms can cause ripple effects for friends, family and professional support. The support network can be vulnerable and present with similar symptoms which may cause disorders like Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) and Secondhand Trauma.
This phenomenon can have a devastating effect and make it even more difficult for the primary victim to recover, achieve peace of mind and a healthy lifestyle.
What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?
“Compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress disorder, is a natural but disruptive by-product of working with traumatized clients. It is a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized and mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (Osofsky, Putnam & Lederman, 2008; Figley, 1995).
Over time, mental health professionals that work with PTSD sufferers are vulnerable to experiencing many of the same symptoms and sliding down a dangerous path. Some symptoms include:
- Emotional numbing or lack of empathy
- Feeling Isolated
- Physical Ailment Manifestations
- Poor Sleep
- Hyper-Arousal or risky-behaviors
Being regularly exposed to disturbing events and emotions can begin to wear down and affect caregivers and mental health support professionals. While some individuals can find healthy means to cope, others can become consciously and subconsciously affected. Just like the Warrior must come to terms and address their own issues, support individuals must be aware, willing and able to do the same.
Caregivers and support individuals can be proactive in seeking individual therapy for themselves, becoming involved in a support group such as Al-Anon, Grief Support and Caregiver groups, and identifying positive self-care coping skills and grounding techniques. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has many mindfulness tools and techniques that can be used to help identify and regulate emotions.
Mental health professionals can also be proactive in mitigating secondary traumatic stress by creating an internal support structure within their facility, clinic or through outside counseling and therapy. It is important to be aware of possible burnout.
“Burnout is not the same as Compassion Fatigue; Burnout is the stress and mental exhaustion caused by the inability to cope with environmental and continuous physical and mental demands.” (Potter, Deshields, Divanbeigi, Berger, Cipriano, Olsen, 2010). Maintaining one’s own mental and emotional health is crucial to a professional’s ability to help their clients and patients.
Effect on Families
Secondhand trauma and STS have been shown to have a profound effect on the families and relationships of warrior PTSD sufferers. These effects can range from obvious and direct issues like frequent nightmares and violence to more subtle symptoms like social detachment or numbed emotions.
Over time, these issues can wear down even the most supportive family and relationships, causing even more tension and negativity, that can lead to relationship issues and strain. Children can also be affected by STS, which can create a complex dynamic within the family support structure. Many children will have difficulty understanding what is happening and why, creating more confusion and fear, which will further feed the underlying issues. Symptoms in in children may present with behavioral challenges, depression, avoidance, poor concentration and self-esteem issues.
Family and friend support groups must be aware of this phenomenon and work to mitigate or heal from STS. Seeking professional help for families will not only help themselves through their own trauma but will also help the primary PTSD sufferer and forge healthy relationships. If you think you might be suffering from PTSD or STS, the first step is to seek professional assistance that will give you the tools to cope and begin the healing process.
The Path to Healing
Remember that the journey towards health and stability can be a long and arduous road that will have its share of pitfalls, roadblocks and victories. Follow your path and be mindful of those you help and serve who are suffering, on a day by day basis and seek professional help where possible. With a strong support base and the right tools, you can win this battle.
For more information, please check out some of our resources. If you are a Warrior and have challenges with alcohol or other substances, get in contact with our team of experts today!