Secondary Trauma and Its Impact on Caregivers

Are you familiar with the term secondary trauma?

Chances are that this is the first time you are hearing about it, so let me give you a brief description of what this phrase actually means.

Definition of Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma is defined as experiencing, hearing about, or being witness to life threatening or life-changing events of another person on a regular basis. 

Little Research Available

This explanation may help you and others see how caregivers, friends and family members of the chronically ill can experience secondary trauma.

Oftentimes this term is used when talking about medical health professionals who work with patients who have chronic health and pain conditions.

In addition, this means that most of the articles on the topic are about how medical professionals are impacted by secondary trauma.  

This is unfortunate because secondary trauma affects so many people who are not medical professionals.

It is the friends, family members and caregivers who are impacted when caring for their chronically ill loved ones.

Caregivers and Secondary Trauma

Oftentimes, caregivers are exposed to secondary trauma because they are the ones who witness what their loved one is going through.  For example, caregivers comfort and support their loved one who has undergone a painful medical procedure.  They also are present when hearing the latest in test results and treatment plans.  

It is the caregivers who are there every day to monitor the well-being of their loved one.  Caregivers oversee their loved one’s basic needs.  This includes meal preparation, medication management and more.

All of this responsibility and being there emotionally for their loved one, leads to secondary trauma.  The caregiver is witnesses the emotional ups and downs.  They also are witness to the traumatic events that take place which are related to their loved one’s medical conditions.

Over time, this prolonged exposure to traumatic events takes a toll on the caregiver.

More Secondary Trauma Examples

Other examples can include the caregiver taking their loved one to the emergency room and being witness to all that happens during that visit.

Additionally, the chronically ill person can be experiencing significant pain and distress while on their way to the hospital and the caregiver is there to see their loved one hurting.

Another example can be when a family member sees a continued decline in their loved one’s overall health.  The chronically ill person has lost a lot of weight, is tired all the time and has difficulty getting out of bed.  Seeing this on a daily basis as a caregiver is traumatizing.

Now the caregiver, friend or family member does not have to physically be present when the chronically ill person has a difficult experience related to their health.

Secondary trauma can happen when the caregiver hears stories repeatedly about upsetting and stressful events the chronically ill person has endured.    

My Personal Take on Secondary Trauma

I can speak to this from my own personal experiences as someone who lives with medical illness and chronic pain.  I have seen how my health conditions have affected those around me.  Family dynamics changed and some relationships became strained.  I know that it was a lot for friends and family to go through.

While those health experiences were difficult for me to endure, and I am also aware how it led to secondary trauma for the family and friends who were there for me. 

Secondary Trauma is Common

I have also seen this happen when thinking about the families and caregivers I work with, or have worked with over the years.  As a chronic pain and illness therapist I have heard countless stories from therapy patients who are spouses, family members and friends, talk about feeling scared and overwhelmed in their caregiving role.

They share that they are at a loss as to how to manage everything relating to their loved one’s care and medical treatment.  This is hard for them because they also have to keep up with the regular day to day responsibilities.  Not having a timeline on how long their loved one will need continued support weighs heavily on them. 

Caregivers may ask themselves:

How long will this go on?

How much longer can I keep up at this pace?  

So if you find yourself asking these questions, then understanding the signs of secondary trauma can help.

Signs of Secondary Trauma

  • Emotional distress
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Change in appetite
  • Strained relationships
  • Sadness / Depression
  • Irritable
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Anxiety
  • Decreased tolerance to upsetting and stressful events

While this is not a comprehensive list, it does highlight what you may be noticing in yourself or in someone you love who may have secondary trauma.

To get more information about secondary trauma signs, you can go here: Secondary Trauma Signs

They refer to secondary trauma as vicarious trauma.  The two phrases are interchangeable.

Also their pdf is specific to healthcare practitioners.  Most online research on this topic is geared toward medical health professionals.

Next Steps

If you find that you are living with secondary trauma, please know that you are not alone.  There are therapists such as myself who specialize in supporting caregivers who are having a hard time finding ways to cope.  Illness and rare health conditions affect the whole family, so if you are looking for more support, please contact me at 818 599-3048.  I offer complementary 15 minute consultations and am happy to provide you with resources that can help.

Daniela Paolone

Daniela Paolone LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of Westlake Village Counseling in Westlake Village, California. She helps those working through pain, illness, depression and anxiety either in the office or through online counseling which is done using a secure platform to ensure client confidentiality. Using education, helpful resources, unconditional support and understanding, she strives to help people transform their pain into power so that they can live their best lives!

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