Secondary Trauma and Burnout

autumn landscape reflected in the water facing the youngAre you regularly exposed to suffering or trauma?
Are you exhausted and emotionally depleted?
Do you withdraw from family and friends?

You are suffering, too.

At first, the work was exciting and you were eager to help and make a difference. You were committed to learning how to help those in crisis, in need, in pain, or who are suffering from abuse, injustice, neglect. Now, it is starting to take its toll – on you, your family, your relationships, your life. You still believe in the work, but it’s getting harder each day.

You might be noticing these symptoms:

  • Exhausted
  • Withdrawn
  • Difficulties with sleep
  • Trying to cope in unhealthy ways
  • Having difficulty relating to others
  • Feeling isolated
  • Can’t stop thinking about work
  • Irritable, worried, or preoccupied
  • Feeling ineffective
  • You’re just not yourself anymore

You need relief… now.

What you are going through is really difficult and can be serious. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Working with those who are suffering doesn’t mean you must suffer, too. I can help you figure out how to find help and relief so you can do your work well and have the quality of life you want and need.

What is secondary trauma? Is it different from burnout?

Compassion fatigue, burnout, secondary trauma (secondary traumatic stress), and vicarious trauma all describe the sometimes overwhelming effects of working with trauma and suffering. Burnout describes the exhaustion one feels from chronic, excessive stress. Symptoms often overlap those of secondary or vicarious trauma, but do not usually involve exposure to trauma.

Secondary trauma means you are directly exposed to the trauma and suffering of others. When this happens, you can develop many of the same symptoms as those you are trying to help. This includes: shock, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, or numbness. If you are experiencing secondary trauma regularly, this can lead to vicarious trauma, which changes how you think and feel about people and the world. Usually, people become more cynical, negative, less flexible, and feel hopeless things will change. It is possible to struggle with all of these at once, or, depending on your work situation, suffer primarily with burnout one week, secondary trauma the next.

Is it really that big of a deal?

Absolutely. Usually, burnout and secondary and vicarious trauma don’t get better on their own unless changes are made. In fact, left untreated, your entire body can suffer. Some people develop mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Physically, people can begin having problems with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and adrenal fatigue. Your relationships can become stressed and strained. Spiritually, you may start to feel more distant, angry, or unsure.

Are some people at higher risk for burnout or secondary trauma?

Anyone who is regularly exposed to suffering or trauma is at risk. Here are a few examples:

Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals; clergy, ministers, and missionaries; first responders; dentists; veterinarians; therapists and other mental health workers; adult and child welfare workers; hospice workers; judges and court officials; and animal welfare workers

Your risk increases if you have personally experienced trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect, medical trauma, a natural disaster, or if you grew up with a parent who struggled with addiction or other mental health problems. You are also at increased risk if you tend to be a sensitive person or have added stressors in your personal life.

Talking to someone about it is not always easy, and you may have questions or concerns.

I don’t see how talking about it will help.

You’re right, simply talking about it may not help and can even hurt, especially with secondary or vicarious trauma. Because of the way our brains process trauma means that, without proper help, simply talking about it can actually re-traumatize you. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Eventually, and at your own pace, talking to me about your work will be important. But we will also use other effective, evidence-based approaches to help you find relief and healing. With this approach, you can learn to do your work effectively and compassionately, while also enjoying your life.

How long will it take?

It depends. Everyone is unique, and everyone wants and needs something slightly different from counseling. Some people want to focus only on creating a concrete working plan to help them manage their work. Others prefer to take time to look at past issues or traumas while also addressing their secondary or vicarious trauma.

Ugh. Going to counseling makes me uncomfortable.

I think most people probably feel this way. Clearly, there are many more fun things you could be doing with your time than sitting in a counseling office. But I know from experience that counseling does help, even if it’s uncomfortable at first (it won’t always be that way, by the way).

Here’s the cool part, though. You might be simply hoping for some relief and healing. But what if you could also take all the burnout and secondary trauma you’ve been through – everything you’ve witnessed, heard, suffered through – and use it to make yourself more resilient, competent, and effective at your work? Vicarious resilience is the hopeful flip side: the trauma of your work can transform you in positive ways, too. We can work together to help you figure out not just how to survive, but how to thrive.

How are you qualified? What makes you different from other therapists?

I’ve been helping people heal from trauma for over 10 years. I’m constantly reading, learning, and expanding my knowledge and skills. But more importantly, I’ve been where you are. I know what it is like to live with burnout and secondary and vicarious trauma, and I know what it’s like to heal and experience vicarious resilience and growth.

My therapeutic approach is also a bit different. First of all, I practice what I preach. My private practice business model includes, in detail, how I will take care of myself to prevent my own burnout or secondary or vicarious trauma. This allows my practice to be sustainable and allows me to give you my best. Secondly, I offer unique treatment options, namely outdoor therapy and animal-assisted therapy for people who wish to use these as part of their counseling.

What’s the next step? What are my options?

If you are ready to begin counseling, you can give me a call to discuss some of the difficulties you’ve been struggling with, and we will both have the opportunity to determine if we are a good fit.

If you aren’t quite ready to begin counseling yet or if you would simply like to get more information and updates, I welcome you to download my free e-books or sign up on my blog to receive regular, occasional information from me via email.

Questions? Please feel free to contact me at (830) 613-1650 or by email.