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Understanding and combatting secondary trauma

Last Modified: 8/16/2019

Secondary trauma – also known as compassion fatigue – refers to the distress that can occur when a professional is exposed to the traumatic experiences of others so regularly that they are in turn impacted to the point of experiencing symptoms themselves. These symptoms are compared to Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Janell Lane, MA, LMHC, director, Southeast Strategy & Relations, tells us more about this condition and what professionals can do to set healthy boundaries and practice smart self-care.

The population

For starters, the issues can seem overwhelming. Based on data we received from the city from the 2015 ACS Study, we know that Southeast Fort Wayne is the most densely populated area. We also know that it contains the most minority residents and has the greatest number of barriers to care. Based on this data, 60% of SE residents fall below the Federal Poverty Level.

In addition, in an effort to better represent the issues facing another category of residents – those who fall above the Federal Poverty Level but don’t make enough money to support an average family of four – the United Way of Allen County introduced ALICE, an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Based on their criteria, roughly 20% of the SE population falls below the ALICE guidelines, meaning they have limited income, in addition to other barriers to care.

When you combine the Federal Poverty Level and the ALICE criteria, we’re looking at 80% of the SE population falling below the ALICE guidelines.  

Preventing secondary trauma

The staff and leaders within organizations that served underserved individuals and families are vulnerable to experiencing secondary trauma. They regularly interact with the residents who fall under the ALICE Guidelines and face associated barriers. Providing services day in and day out can be challenging. There is so much to think about. Take a leader of a youth organization, for example. They can provide stability within the center they manage and healthy coping skills for the young people that they serve, but the pressure to change or impact environmental factors for the youth can be add extra weight to the work.

We try to help these leaders and staff members serving this vulnerable populations, by offering tools for professional and personal development. We want to help them take care of themselves and provide methods for putting self-care strategies in place. We educate them about the importance of their home life, work/life balance, setting healthy boundaries and how their own emotional triggers could impact their exchanges at work.

10 Tips for Avoiding Secondary Trauma

Implementing these strategies can have a huge impact on mental and emotional health, and promote balance for those serving others routinely. 

  • Create an early warning system.  Learn to identify when you’re feeling “off” and when you need a break. Be receptive to feedback when people close to you point out the fact that you need a break.
  • Training.  Pursue discussions and educational opportunities on topics relating to the work you do and the challenges you face.  
  • Debrief traumatic events with safe people and supervisors.  One of our initiatives has been to create intentional spaces where like-minded people can come together and be transparent. We want them to feel safe to vocalize their weaknesses and struggles, and know they can get honest feedback from others who understand. Having that dialogue is so powerful. It allows leaders to grow and learn from each other and work out issues in a supportive environment. Find a group that feels authentic to you and know that you don’t have to meet certain expectations.
  • Set healthy boundaries.  Define what feels good to you and what feels like it’s crossing the line and be clear with others about those boundaries.
  • Stay in the light. Pull clients or customers out of the darkness.  It’s important to show empathy, but avoid climbing into the darkness with your patients or clients. Identify with what they’re feeling, but be careful not to take it on yourself.
  • Strategic time off.   Be intentional about turning work off when you need to and implementing self-care regularly.
  • Self-care and/or asking for care from others when needed.  For those who live to serve, self-care can feel like another responsibility, or something that you “have” to do. Find a self-care practice that doesn’t feel like a task. It’s also helpful to surround yourself with people who will pour into you rather than take from you. Know what you need from others and don’t be shy about communicating that to them.
  • Establish a transition routine from work to home.  Find a way to help your body and mind register that work is done and now it’s time to shut down, release and be at home. This might be singing in the car, or stopping at the gym on the way home or listening to a sermon or podcast. Find some way to decompress.
  • Constantly assess.  Check in with yourself regularly, and be honest about how you’re feeling.
  • Cut back when necessary.  Don’t be afraid to say “no” or ask for more support when necessary. Part of self-care is speaking up for yourself when necessary.


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