What Are the Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress


Secondary traumatic stress (STS), also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious traumatization, is an emotional condition that develops in individuals who are indirectly exposed to traumatic events in their line of work or relationships. Just like primary trauma victims, people experiencing STS exhibit a range of emotional, physical, and behavioral signs that indicate they are being negatively affected by these traumatic experiences. In this article, we will discuss the signs of secondary traumatic stress to help identify it in ourselves or those close to us.

Emotional Signs:

1. Intrusive thoughts: Individuals with STS might uncontrollably think about and visualize the traumatic situations they’ve been exposed to, leading to feelings of anxiety and restlessness.

2. Emotional numbness: They may experience difficulty feeling empathy or emotions, making it challenging to connect emotionally with others.

3. Anger and irritability: People suffering from STS may find themselves getting uncharacteristically angry and frustrated over seemingly minor incidents.

4. Guilt: Affected individuals may feel guilty for not being able to do enough for the person who experienced the trauma or because they believe they could have prevented it.

5. Sadness and depression: Persistent sadness or even clinical depression can develop as a result of prolonged exposure to others’ traumatic experiences.

Physical Signs:

1. Sleep disturbances: Insomnia, nightmares, and difficulty falling asleep may occur due to constant worrying or intrusive thoughts about the trauma.

2. Exhaustion: People with STS often feel mentally and physically drained, as if their energy has been depleted by the continuous stress of exposure to trauma.

3. Physical ailments: Symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and muscle tension are common signs of STS.

4. Changes in appetite: Eating too much or too little can sometimes be a result of the emotional turmoil caused by secondary trauma exposure.

Behavioral Signs:

1. Social withdrawal: A person experiencing STS might avoid social interactions, leading to isolation and loneliness.

2. Substance abuse: Some individuals may turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for dealing with the emotional pain associated with STS.

3. Difficulty concentrating: The emotional strain of STS can make it challenging to maintain focus on tasks and responsibilities in daily life.

4. Boundary issues: Affected individuals might struggle to maintain professional boundaries with clients, patients, or colleagues, becoming overly involved in their traumatic experiences.

5. Apathy: Over time, STS sufferers may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and develop a generalized sense of apathy toward life.


Recognizing the signs of secondary traumatic stress is vital for seeking appropriate support and maintaining mental health. If you or someone you know exhibits any combination of these symptoms, it is essential to reach out to a mental health professional for help. With the right intervention, it is possible to manage and overcome STS, allowing those affected to continue providing support to trauma victims without compromising their well-being.

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