It’s the time of year when social gatherings kick into high gear. After a year of isolation, many people are excited to spend the holidays with loved ones, but you might find yourself dreading a particular gathering or person. While family dynamics are complicated, there could be a deeper reason why you feel unwell around certain people: the trauma that other people experience can begin to affect your own mental health.
Through vicarious trauma, indirect trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout, you can take on some of the weight of traumatic experiences that you’ve never experienced on your own. Here’s what you should know about secondary trauma, and protecting your own health and wellbeing.
We’ve all had the experience of hearing a story and empathizing deeply with the teller. When a story is traumatic, our feelings can go even deeper than that, resulting in changes to our own mental health. This is known as vicarious trauma or indirect trauma.
There’s no one definition of what trauma is. An event that one person is able to cope with might cause long-lasting trauma for another. It’s the same with vicarious trauma: there’s no predicting what might cause it, or who it might hit.
Vicarious trauma can occur in personal or professional relationships. If you hear about an attack or medical scare that your loved one experienced, you might find yourself fixating on how terrifying or violating it must have been for them. The same can be said for professionals including counselors, first responders and refugee workers, all of whom can be traumatized by the experiences that they hear about second hand.
People who regularly care for others — particularly for those experiencing trauma — might find themselves facing compassion fatigue. This is a type of stress that develops over time. Rather than feeling energized and happy to be helping, you might find yourself feeling frustrated, helpless or indifferent toward a person or cause you once loved.
This is particularly common among caregivers of people with substance use disorder or mental illness. With both of these conditions, relapse is part of the recovery experience. Unfortunately, so is denying illness and refusing to get help. If your loved one has been in a cycle of ill health for years, you might find yourself fed up, rather than energized to help.
Similar to compassion fatigue, burnout is an exhaustion that can creep up after months or years of caregiving. Like the secondary traumas above, burnout can happen in professional or personal relationships. Many healthcare workers have experienced burnout during the pandemic because of long hours and traumatic work environments. Close family members or people with mental illness might experience burnout when they pour effort into their loved one, only to feel that it’s not making a difference and not being appreciated.
Coping with secondary traumas
Secondary traumas didn’t happen directly to you, but they can still have a big impact on your health. Because of that, it’s important to get treatment for secondary traumas, especially if they begin interfering with how you live your life day to day.
Counseling can help. Self-care is also important. Oftentimes, compassion fatigue and burnout appear when we feel we’re putting all of our effort into another person, without saving anything for ourselves. Good self care like exercising, eating well and taking time to be with loved ones can help fill your cup, so that you can pour into other people.
Finally, there are boundaries. This is especially important during the holiday season, when we are often exposed to our loved ones frequently. Decide what boundaries you need to establish for your own health. This might mean not discussing certain topics, avoiding conversations about work, or only interacting with certain people in a group. Think about your boundaries ahead of time, explain them to your loved one in a matter-of-fact way, and know what you’ll do if someone is not respecting those boundaries.
Sometimes, secondary trauma can come with a level of guilt. You might feel that you have no business feeling disturbed or negative when your loved one “has it so much worse.” Unfortunately, there’s no logic involved in how the brain and body respond to trauma, including secondary trauma. Make space for what you are experiencing, and know that your feelings don’t take anything away from the feeling of your loved one. Seeking help for secondary trauma, compassion fatigue or burnout is nothing to be ashamed of: it’s a way to be your best self, which ultimately helps the people around you, too.
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