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Secondry Traumatic Stress in Social Workers

Being a social worker can be very rewarding. As a social worker, you get the opportunity to improve the lives of children who have not had the best lives. On a daily basis, social workers interact with children that come from broken or abusive homes. Social workers even interact with children that have experienced severe trauma or pain.

Social work and child welfare are also incredibly stressful given the nature of the job. Constantly being around others who have experienced different forms of trauma can indirectly cause unwanted trauma and stress in the lives of social workers. When a person begins to experience stress and trauma as a result of repeated exposure to other people’s trauma, it’s called secondary traumatic stress.

What Is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary traumatic stress, or STS, is the emotional pressure that occurs when people hear about another person’s traumatic experiences. Social workers and other child welfare staff are prone to experiencing STS. This is due to the nature of their work. A major component of being a social worker or member of a child welfare staff is listening to children that have unfair experiences and supporting them.  

Secondary traumatic stress can come out of nowhere. You can feel the effects of it after a single exposure. STS can result in anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or even compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is particularly harmful to social workers. This is because it causes them to feel a sense of numbness and disconnection from patients. This could fail the child.

What Are Some Examples of Secondary Traumatic Stress in Social Workers?

Traumatic experiencesAs we mentioned above, secondary traumatic stress can come out of nowhere. It also can affect anyone that is of any walk of life. STS can come out of nowhere and affect others, this is why it’s important to understand how exactly STS forms. Whether you’re a social worker or a child welfare worker, you might begin to experience STS after:

  • Listening to a child talk about being raped, assaulted, or abused in any way
  • Witnessing abuse in a work environment, such a seeing a parent abuse a child during a therapy session
  • A client’s family member dies or suffers from a serious injury

Exposure to others’ trauma and suffering, can also cause vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is a longer-term reaction to constant exposure to traumatic events. Some examples of vicarious trauma include:

  • A social worker regularly seeing clients die of HIV or AIDS
  • A rape counselor constantly seeing rape victims dismissed, disbelieved, or blamed for their abuse
  • A child welfare worker regularly working with traumatized children

Secondary Traumatic Stress Signs

While you can’t always prevent secondary traumatic stress, knowing the signs of STS can help you catch it early. After all, the earlier you notice it, the easier it is to recover from it.

Some common signs and symptoms of secondary traumatic stress include:

  • Having nightmares that focus on the experiences of your patients
  • An increase in symptoms related to your own personal trauma
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Feeling burnt out
  • Exhaustion
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling like you can’t support your patients
  • Actively avoiding any discussion about work outside of work
  • A change in your sleeping or eating habits
  • Developing feelings of anxiety, fear, or anger that previously didn’t exist
  • Having trouble discussing or even processing emotions
  • Losing interest in your work
  • Experiencing anger toward your clients

If you notice that one or more of these signs and symptoms apply to you, you may be experiencing STS in the form of vicarious trauma.

I Think I Might Suffer From Secondary Traumatic Stress, What Do I Do Now?

If you still think that you suffer from STS or vicarious trauma, you’re not alone. Over half of all Americans report experiencing trauma at some point in their lives. As a social worker, you’re exposed to more trauma than most. The good news is that there are many things that you can do on your own to address your STS. Here are some things that you can do to both treat STS and prevent them from coming back in the future.

Traumatic Stress in Social WorkersPrevention Strategies

You can do the following things to actively prevent the development of STS:

  • Make sure to have a good work-home balance
  • Employ relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga
  • Do something with nature such as gardening or going for hikes. This allows you to maintain perspective about the world around you.
  • Find creative activities to do such as cooking, art, or photography
  • Set limits both at work and in your personal life. Remember that it’s ok to say no sometimes.
  • Practice effective time management

Treatment Strategies 

If you think that you are experiencing symptoms of STS, there are things that you can do to help. Here are some things you can do on your own to treat STS:

  • Make sure you’re eating healthy, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep
  • Use a journal to write about any feelings you may have as a result of STS
  • Seek out support from others via support groups
  • Find new ways to manage and cope with your stress such as yoga or meditation
  • Ask for help

In addition to these things, you can also seek professional help such as a therapist or counselor. Some counselors and therapists specialize in trauma.

Secondary Traumatic Stress and Co-occurring disorders

Unfortunately, many people who suffer from secondary traumatic stress also end up suffering from other mental disorders as well. They might not know what is wrong with them, or they might be too embarrassed to ask for help. This can be especially true for those in the social work field. After all, they are the ones people turn to when they are in trouble, not the other way around.

As a result, people may begin to experience the blunt force of other mental illnesses stemming from STS. What tends to happen is these two conditions affect one another, which creates a vicious cycle. A person can be dealing with depressionanxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, or other mental conditions simultaneously. 

When someone is struggling with two mental disorders at the same time, this is referred to as a co-occurring disorder. It’s important to get proper help for both STS and any other mental disorders. This is where Montare Behavioral Health comes in. We specialize in dual diagnosis treatment of mental disorders and mindful wellbeing. 

Treatment Options

As with any form of mental illness, it is important to get help from professionals. This is especially true if you are suffering from other problems like co-occurring disorders. At Montare Behavioral Health there are several treatment options and services we provide to help you cope and deal with STS symptoms and stress.

By speaking with counselors you can come to terms with these feelings while learning to manage them. There are several different types of treatment options, these mainly involve inpatient or outpatient treatment (depending on the severity of the situation). Our Inpatient treatment involves full support with 24/7 surveillance in our safe and comfortable California based center. We also provide outpatient treatment for mental disorders as well (which requires only weekly visits).

During treatment, you will have access to many different types of therapy options. These mainly will be psychotherapy that helps you pinpoint certain behaviors and negative thoughts. For STS and other conditions, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and group therapy are just some of the widely used therapies for mental health treatment.

Want to Know More About Secondary Traumatic Stress in Social Workers?

Secondary traumatic stress is common among those who find themselves in professions that revolve around trauma and stress. One of those professions is being a social worker. As a result, many social workers develop secondary traumatic stress or other disorders.

If you or someone you know has is struggling with STS or another mental disorder, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. At Montare Behavioral Center, we treat a wide variety of mental disorders. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment services and mental health resources