Friday, May 3, 2024

Secondary Trauma vs Compassion Fatigue


Secondary Trauma, also known as Vicarious Trauma, is a serious issue that can affect individuals who work in caregiving professions. It is often used interchangeably with compassion fatigue, but there is a key difference between the two.

Compassion fatigue is a gradual process of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged exposure to trauma while caring for others. This can lead to symptoms such as dissociation, lack of concentration, irritability, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. These symptoms don't just stay at work. They can have a negative impact on personal relationships as well. Over time, compassion fatigue can be exacerbated by stress within the organization one works for, lack of support or recognition, and negative outcomes when working with traumatized individuals. This can put caregivers at a higher risk for mental health issues like depression, burnout, and even PTSD.

On the other hand, Secondary Trauma or Vicarious Trauma involves profound negative changes in an individual's worldview due to their exposure to traumatic content from those they are helping. 

If you are experiencing the following problems, Secondary Trauma / Vicarious Trauma may have developed:

  • Fear in non-threatening situations
  • Physical symptoms include headaches, shortness of breath, and a racing heart
  • Feeling others’ trauma as if you experienced it yourself
  • Constantly feeling on guard or jumpy
  • Excessive fear that yourself, your colleagues, or loved ones may get hurt
  • Persistent intrusive thoughts involving the trauma of others 

During a TED Talk in 2017, Patricia Smith, the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, had this to say: 

“Caregivers are not good at asking for help. Asking for help is hard, no matter who you are. For nurses, doctors, teachers and more, the idea of leaving work can seem like an impossibility.

You may feel guilty or that you are abandoning your patients or students. But if you are struggling with drug or alcohol use, you need help too. Your clients, patients and students will be happy for you.”

Compassion fatigue and Vicarious Trauma may be a common occurrence in caregiving professions, but it doesn't have to take control of your life. By taking care of yourself and being aware of the warning signs, you can continue to provide excellent care without sacrificing your own well-being. Remember, only when you take care of yourself can you truly take care of others.


If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”

Get your copy of The Soldier's Guide to PTSDThe Soldier's Workbook

or Acknowledge & Heal, A Women's-Focused Guide to PTSD

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