62: Secondary Traumatic Stress: Know When the Traumatic Experience of Others is Negatively Impacting You


Now that we’ve spent time talking about how to recognize trauma and battle burnout in the workplace, it’s only fitting we move right into how to recognize signs of Secondary Trauma. Secondary Traumatic Stress can be any combination of emotional, mental, or behavioral trauma responses like images getting stuck in your head, avoidance, intrusive negative thoughts, and difficulty concentrating.

STS can mirror the same signs of someone experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the difference is you don’t experience the traumatic event directly. Instead, Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) can occur in anyone who hears the firsthand account, or is indirectly exposed, to someone else’s traumatic experience.  Tune in to this episode with Nikki Young and Alyssa Najera as they share examples of Secondary Traumatic Stress and help you better understand, recognize, and navigate secondary traumatization.

In this episode we talk about:

What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is a combination of trauma responses that can result from hearing, watching, or reading about the traumatic experience of others. This can occur from professional roles of working with trauma survivors, witnessing criminal acts of violence, working the Emergency Department or working in protective services. STS, however, can also occur outside of work and as a result of hearing someone story, witnessing disturbing images or video on social media or news outlets, or learning something traumatic happened to someone you love.

Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress

Secondary Traumatic Stress mimic the same trauma responses as those described in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The only difference, however, is STS can result from learning about the firsthand experience of someone else’s trauma, whereas PTSD requires a person directly experiencing an event or series of events. These trauma responses include a cluster of physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Hypervigilance: Exhibiting extreme alertness, care, or caution in one or several areas of your life
  • Increased Startle Response: Feeling extra jumpy or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Easily distracted
  • Images or parts of an event get stuck or replay in your head
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things that might remind you of the event or series of events
  • Disrupted sleep or nightmares
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt or helplessness
  • Somatic or physiological responses to being reminded of the event(s)

Who is at Risk of Experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)

While people working in crisis or with trauma exposed populations are at an exceptionally high risk, secondary traumatic can also occur due to exposure to images or stories you hear in the media, national crisis, or videos.

According to research, the below populations are at high risk of developing Secondary Traumatic Stress

  • First Responders
  • Child Protective Service Providers
  • Mental Health Clinicians
  • Educators
  • Health Care Providers
  • Helping Professionals

What is the difference between Secondary Traumatic Stress, Vicarious Trauma, and Compassion Fatigue?

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are distinctly different.

Secondary Traumatic Stress refers to the presence of trauma symptoms, also consistent with PTSD symptoms, that are caused by at least one indirect exposure to traumatic material or events. This exposure could be through learning about someone’s story firsthand verbally, via images, news media, reports, social media, or videos.

Vicarious Trauma is less focused on trauma responses or symptoms and more focused on the cognitive changes or shifts in world view that occur over time because of repeated exposure to trauma stories. Vicarious traumatization is less present as trauma responses and more present as a shift in one’s overall perspective of their environment.

Compassion Fatigue also known as Empathic Strain

Compassion fatigue is the gradual increase of immense emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from the ongoing output of empathy and compassion required in one’s work. It is most commonly experienced in health care and helping professions, but is also experienced in other professions. Compassion fatigue can result in feelings of indifference or apathy toward the pain and suffering of others.

Resources mentioned:

We’ve pulled together any resources mentioned in this episode and put together some links:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network; STS a Fact Sheet for Child-Serving Professionals


Professional Quality of Life Scale


Thank you for allowing us into your lives and helping us make mental health relatable and a part of your everyday conversation! For more information or to access all episodes visit TherapistsUncut.com.

What is the Therapists Uncut Podcast:

The Therapists Uncut Podcast is a light-hearted, informative self-help podcast for grown-ups. It is hosted by off-the-clock therapists hoping to validate your experiences, normalize therapy and therapists, and help you prioritize your mental health.

Who are the Therapists Uncut Podcast Co-Hosts:

Nikki Young is co-host of Therapists Uncut and a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Nikki keeps it personable and professional. Yet, she always manages to keep the Therapists Uncut family and followers laughing. You may find her squirreling through topics, stories, or jokes, and all in good fun. Don’t worry because someone will bring her back around to the conversation. Nikki is a licensed marriage and family therapist in her private practice located in Modesto, CA, and she is also a Crisis Junkie at heart. In addition to being co-owner of a group private practice, she is also a crisis clinician responding to local mental health crisis and emergencies. Learn more about Nikki at catalystcounselinginc.com

Alyssa Najera is co-host of Therapists Uncut and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Alyssa is typically calm and composed on most days, but often has difficulty containing her excitement about the little things in life. She loves to laugh, spread positivity, and is often caught with a smile on her face. Alyssa is also a Child Welfare Services social worker and supervisor alumni, previous child sexual abuse forensic interviewer, trainer and consultant, and CEO of a group private practice in the small town of Oakdale, CA. Learn more about Alyssa at smalltowncounselingca.com or alyssanajera.com.


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Voice Over by Alexia Gloria