By: Allyson England Drake, M.Ed, CT

COVID-19 Pandemic. Senseless acts of violence. School shootings of young children. Numerous mass shootings. Increased suicides in our country. Overwhelming numbers of overdoses. Devastating weather and other natural events. 

First responders, educators, employees, parents, news reporters, coroners, students, mental health clinicians, medical professionals …just to name a few…are suffering from high levels of stress, anxiety, PTSD, fear, worry, and hopelessness due to so much grief and loss in our world. Individuals can grieve for children, adults, families and communities, even if we did not know those who died. We can feel deep pain, heartache, and anger for parents, family members, and friends of those we did not know. 

And for those who are working on the front lines or reporting the news, these images of devastation and loss can cause a trauma exposure response. When a journalist or first responder bears witness to individual and collective grief, this trauma and grief can inevitably affect them. These professions are at higher risk for developing PTSD or other trauma responses. Stories or experiences of those we are helping can hit very close to home and affect us in a variety of ways. 

When we live in these high levels of stress and loss, we can develop secondary traumatic stress. 

What is secondary traumatic stress (STS)? 

According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, STS is the emotional distress that results when an individual hears about the traumatic experiences of another individual or shares the story of a traumatic or violent situation. In addition, recently we have more understanding how one can develop STS when a traumatic event occurs in a community (such as a mass shooting event). Individuals can experience profound emotions after watching news coverage or reading witness accounts of this event.  

Symptoms include: 

  • Hopelessness
  • Fear
  • Obsession about certain events or circumstances
  • Emotional numbing
  • Anger
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Increase in addictive behaviors
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Feelings of severe exhaustion or fatigue
  • Guilt
  • Avoiding activities you normally enjoy
  • Sleep disturbance

It is important to understand these symptoms and recognize times one may need to step away from the stress, participate in self-care activities, ask for help, and/or take time to rejuvenate one’s mind and body.

Continuous secondary trauma can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, low productivity/poor work quality, absences from work/school, increased mental or physical health challenges.

How do we cope? 

  1. Exercise: running, walking, boxing, dancing, weightlifting, or any other kind of movement
  2. Rest: make sure you are getting enough relaxation and sleep
  3. Identify self-care strategies that work for you and develop a plan
  4. Practice meditation or mindfulness 
  5. Ask for help: seek counseling or reach out to friends and family for support
  6. Set limits: say no when you need to, set boundaries in order to protect your self-care