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The Silent Struggle: Overcoming Secondary Trauma with EMDR and CBT 

Today, we delve into a topic that touches many lives, yet often remains under the radar, secondary trauma. This condition not only affects professionals in high-stress fields like healthcare, therapy, social work, and emergency services but also those who encounter it through personal relationships. Also referred to as vicarious trauma, secondary trauma arises when an individual is exposed to distressing experiences or narratives endured by others, leading to significant emotional and psychological stress. For those who are naturally empathic, the emotional burden of carrying someone else’s trauma can be particularly overwhelming. In this blog, we will explore the nature of secondary trauma, learn how to identify its symptoms, and importantly, discover how therapeutic approaches such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can provide effective ways to manage and overcome it. 

What is Secondary Trauma? 

Secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma, develops when someone is impacted by the firsthand trauma experiences of another. This form of trauma can lead to significant emotional strain that manifests in ways strikingly similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Common symptoms include persistent sadness, anxiety, detachment from others, and a noticeable decrease in feelings of personal accomplishment or satisfaction. These emotional responses are not merely fleeting; they can profoundly affect your mental health and overall well-being. 

If you are experiencing secondary trauma, you may find yourself involuntarily replaying the traumatic stories you have been exposed to, whether through professional roles, such as therapists or first responders, or through close personal relationships with friends or family members who have suffered direct trauma. This repetitive cycle can lead to an overwhelming sense of being burdened by the emotional needs of others, which may exacerbate your own stress levels. 

Moreover, those dealing with secondary trauma often face complex feelings of guilt. You might question the legitimacy of your distress, pondering whether it is appropriate to feel such profound emotional reactions to events you did not personally experience. This internal conflict can create a barrier to seeking help, as you may feel undeserving of support or worry that your struggles are not valid compared to those of direct trauma survivors. Understanding and acknowledging secondary trauma as a genuine and impactful condition is crucial in providing the necessary support and interventions you need. 

Indicators of Secondary Trauma 

Recognizing potential signs of secondary trauma is essential for timely and effective intervention. Individuals experiencing secondary trauma often display a range of psychological and physical symptoms that, if not addressed, can significantly impair their daily functioning and quality of life. Potential signs of secondary trauma include:  

Emotional Signs 

  • Increased irritability or anger 
  • Feelings of sadness or depression 
  • Emotional exhaustion or numbness 
  • Decreased satisfaction or pleasure from work 
  • Increased anxiety or fearfulness 

Physical Signs 

  • Fatigue or general tiredness 
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or nightmares 
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Headaches or other physical complaints without clear medical causes 

Cognitive Signs 

  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Intrusive thoughts related to the trauma of others 
  • Diminished creativity 
  • Difficulty making decisions 

Behavioral Signs 

  • Withdrawal from social interactions 
  • Avoidance of work or work-related activities 
  • Increased use of substances like alcohol or drugs 
  • Changes in work performance 

Interpersonal Signs 

  • Strained personal relationships 
  • Decreased patience or tolerance towards others 
  • Feeling disconnected from others 

It’s important to recognize these signs early and take them seriously. Each symptom can contribute to a declining spiral of mental and physical health, underscoring the need for supportive interventions and strategies to manage and mitigate the effects of secondary trauma. 

How PTSD caused by Secondary Trauma is Diagnosed  

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traditionally associated with first-hand trauma, can also occur in individuals who are exposed to the detailed traumatic experiences of others, particularly if this exposure is intense, prolonged, or repeated. Here’s how PTSD is diagnosed: 

  1. Exposure to Trauma: This includes learning that a traumatic event occurred to someone close or repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic events, as often occurs in professional settings like counseling or law enforcement. 
  1. Intrusion Symptoms: Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic events, or distressing dreams related to the events. 
  1. Avoidance: Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic events (e.g., avoiding conversations about the details of the events). 
  1. Negative Changes in Thoughts and Mood: Negative alterations in cognitions and mood associated with the traumatic event, such as distorted blame of self or others, estrangement from others, or diminished interest in activities. 
  1. Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity: Marked alterations in arousal and reactivity associated with the traumatic events, such as hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, or problems with concentration. 
  1. Duration: Symptoms last for more than one month. 
  1. Functional Significance: Significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. 
  1. Exclusion of Other Factors: The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., medication, alcohol) or another medical condition. 

EMDR for Secondary Trauma 

EMDR is a psychotherapy technique originally developed to treat PTSD. Its effectiveness for secondary trauma is rooted in its approach to processing distressing memories and emotions. EMDR therapy involves the following steps: 

History and Treatment Planning: Your therapist assesses your history to understand the dynamics of your trauma. 

Preparation: You are taught stress management techniques to handle emotional distress. 

Assessment: The specific traumatic memory to be targeted is identified, and components of the memory are explored. 

Desensitization: You will focus on the traumatic memory while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements), which is believed to reduce the vividness and emotion associated with the memory. 

Installation: The goal is to strengthen positive beliefs related to the traumatic memory. 

Body Scan: After desensitization, you will be asked to observe your physical response while thinking about the memory, identifying any residual physical tension or discomfort. 

Closure: The therapy session ensures that you leave feeling better than when you arrived, using techniques learned in preparation. 

Reevaluation: In subsequent sessions, your progress and the effectiveness of the therapy is assessed. 

Research shows that EMDR can significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD and, by extension, secondary trauma, by altering the way distressing memories are stored in the brain, thus diminishing their troubling impact. 

CBT for Secondary Trauma  

CBT is another highly effective approach for managing secondary trauma. It involves working with a therapist to identify and challenge unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior. Key components of CBT include: 

Education: Learning about the impact of trauma and understanding how it affects your thoughts and feelings. 

Cognitive Processing: Identifying thoughts and beliefs that are distorted or unhelpful (e.g., “I should have done more to help”) and challenging these to align more closely with reality. 

Skill Development: Learning and practicing stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness. 

Behavioral Activation: Encouraging activities that bring joy and reconnect you with your values and interests. 

Studies have found CBT effective in reducing symptoms of both primary and secondary trauma, improving mood and functionality. 

Setting Boundaries and Self Care 

Setting boundaries is critical to prevent emotional overload, especially for those frequently exposed to traumatic information. It’s important to clearly define and communicate your limits on handling such information and consistently uphold these boundaries. Taking regular breaks and engaging in activities that recharge your emotional energy are also key. 

In addition to therapies like EMDR and CBT, implementing self-care strategies is crucial for managing secondary trauma. Effective self-care practices include engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, ensuring sufficient sleep, seeking social support, and seeking counselling when needed. These practices not only sustain your overall well-being but also bolster your capacity to handle the demands of supporting others. 

Conclusion 

Dealing with secondary trauma can indeed be daunting, but remember, it’s a condition that can be managed and overcome. With the right therapeutic approaches, such as EMDR and CBT, combined with strong self-care practices, there’s substantial hope for recovery and rejuvenation. 

At Love This Therapy, we deeply understand the complexities and often isolating nature of secondary trauma. Our team of dedicated clinicians are trained in both EMDR and CBT and are committed to providing the support you need. Whether you’re reaching out for yourself or on behalf of someone you care about, we’re here to offer the care that you have always extended to others. 

Don’t hesitate to give us a call at 604-229-4887 or email us at info@lovethistherapy.com to schedule your complimentary 15-minute discovery call. It’s your turn to receive the support and care you need. Let us help you find your path back to wellbeing. 

Reference Guide 

Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. New York: Guilford Press. 

Beck, J.S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press. 

Figley, C.R. (Ed.). (1995). *Compassion Fatigue: Coping With Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder In Those 

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