Secondary or vicarious trauma is well recognised as a risk for people in the helping professionals who work with survivors. However, family members, partners and people who have a significant relationship with a survivor of complex trauma can also experience secondary trauma.
If you are supporting a survivor who you care about, you may hear disturbing stories of their traumatic experiences. At times, hearing these stories may overwhelm you. This can make you feel the sorts of feelings the survivor you are supporting is feeling. You may even find that you lose your faith in the world and challenge your own beliefs. This may mean that you are experiencing secondary trauma. The more you are exposed to traumatic material, the greater the risk you have of experiencing secondary trauma.
Compassion fatigue is another real risk of caring. It is the emotional and physical fatigue that you can experience when you support a survivor. This happens because you have compassion for them. This is different to secondary trauma. It does not usually cause trauma-related symptoms or you to change your world view.
For this reason, we recommend that anyone who is supporting a survivor on their journey needs to take enough time out for themselves. It is important to attend to your own self-care and build a strong support network around you, if you can. Connecting with other people who are also supporting survivors and building a peer network or seeking professional help can also be of assistance.
If you are supporting a survivor on their journey of recovery and start to feel overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, can’t sleep, feel exhausted or isolated, find it difficult to concentrate or are feeling hopeless or helpless you may be experiencing secondary trauma. It is important for you to be able to identify the signs early, take whatever time out you need and seek support, including from a counsellor or therapist if you need to.