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Coping with the Effects of Secondary Trauma in Education

Approximate reading time: 7 minutes.

Most educators can think of a time when a pupil told them about a traumatic event that happened at home. Whether it was abuse or the loss of a loved one, that traumatic event had a substantial impact on the pupil. Hearing these disturbing stories regularly can put a strain on teacher wellbeing and lead to a condition known as secondary trauma. Recognising the signs of secondary trauma and addressing them straight away is key to protecting your wellbeing.

a woman is writing on a blackboard with chalk.

What is secondary trauma? 

Secondary trauma happens when a person is indirectly exposed to traumatic events. Simply hearing about a traumatic event can be emotionally upsetting. You might feel scared, helpless, and stressed when you think about what the person has told you. Your mind and body start to react the same way to the secondary trauma as they might if you had experienced the event yourself.

This type of trauma can lead to a range of symptoms and undermines education staff wellbeing. Unfortunately, secondary trauma in education is becoming more common. Teachers are increasingly met with pupils who need significant social and emotional support. These demands can tax the mental wellbeing of even the most level-headed education staff. 

If you'd like to learn more about primary trauma in education, read our guide on coping with trauma as an educator.

What causes secondary trauma? 

Secondary trauma was first researched by psychologists in the 1990s. The researchers wanted to know why service providers who interacted with trauma sufferers sometimes displayed the symptoms of traumatic stress. They found a direct correlation between being exposed to someone else's trauma and developing symptoms typical of PTSD.

Secondary trauma in educational settings is often caused by hearing pupils recount traumatic events that have happened in their homes. You might hear about an abusive parent or fighting at home. You may see physical signs of abuse like bruises or worry that some of your pupils aren't properly fed and sheltered. Secondary trauma can also occur when your colleagues, friends, or family share information about traumatic events with you.

Education staff trauma is sometimes exacerbated by a need to recount traumatic stories to school leaders or authorities. For example, you may have to restate traumatic information that a pupil shared with you. Having to repeatedly confront such disturbing information can make the symptoms of secondary trauma worse.

Although you don't experience the trauma firsthand, it can still affect you deeply. Your worry about one pupil might become generalised to worrying about all pupils. You may even worry about your safety. These negative feelings may become worse if you experience isolation or loneliness. These are normal responses to experiencing secondary trauma.  

If pupils have disclosed abuse, neglect, or other concerning information to you, be sure to follow your school's safeguarding procedures. Inform your designated safeguarding lead straight away so that an appropriate response can be started. Remember that you are not alone in supporting your pupils. Your safeguarding lead and school administrators are there to help.

How to spot the symptoms of secondary trauma in teachers

Recognising the signs of secondary trauma is key to getting timely help for yourself or a colleague. Secondary trauma shares many symptoms with PTSD. These include

  • Having flashbacks or rehashing the traumatic event in your mind again and again
  • Feeling hypervigilant, or as though you must always be on your guard 
  • Mood changes including irritability and depression
  • Either sleeping too much or too little
  • Being easily startled or alarmed by things that remind you of the trauma
  • Suffering from headaches, nausea, body aches, and sweats 
  • Blaming yourself for not intervening or "fixing" the situation
  • Feeling helpless or lonely 

If you're concerned about your wellbeing or have experienced a traumatic event, it's important to reach out for support. We've put together these helpful links to support services for you. If you are in crisis or are experiencing suicidal feelings, please call 999 straight away. 

Are secondary trauma and compassion fatigue the same? 

You might see the term "secondary trauma" used interchangeably with "compassion fatigue". However, the two are not exactly the same. Compassion fatigue refers to a feeling of numbness or burnout from being exposed to secondary trauma repeatedly. You might feel as though you just don't care anymore or don't have the energy to deal with hearing about traumatic events anymore. 

a man's head with hearts and lightning coming out of it.

The term "vicarious trauma" is also used to describe secondary trauma. The two are often interchangeable, but vicarious trauma refers specifically to the cumulative effects of working or living with traumatized individuals over a long period of time. Vicarious trauma can be experienced by education staff when they work every day with pupils or colleagues who display symptoms of PTSD or talk about traumatic events.

Strategies to cope with secondary trauma

Experiencing secondary trauma can make educators feel helpless and hopeless. Thankfully, there are many strategies you can use to cope with the effects of secondary trauma. Remember to be gentle with yourself as you try new strategies. If you struggle with anxiety as a result of secondary trauma, you may also want to try these strategies for managing anxiety

Prioritise exercise and physical activity

You probably know that exercising releases endorphins, or chemicals that help you feel positive and happier. Exercising regularly can help reduce depression, improve mood, and boost energy levels. Focusing on a physical activity that you enjoy can also help take your mind off traumatic events and ease hypervigilance.  

Spend time outdoors 

People who suffer from secondary trauma might feel "trapped" or on edge whilst in classrooms and other pupil-oriented settings. Give yourself room to breathe and relax outdoors when you can. You could go to a park, on a walk, or head out for a hike over a weekend. Many people find spending time in nature calming or reassuring.

Take time to appreciate the scenery around you. Note the colours, sounds, and smells that you encounter. Focusing on the natural world can help relieve your mind of stress and calm negative thought patterns. 

Take time to rest and recover

Getting a good night's sleep is essential to both your physical and mental wellbeing. Feeling fatigued or unrested can increase feelings of irritability, depression, and hopelessness. Your body needs adequate time to rest and recover. This is especially true when you're coping with secondary traumatic stress. 

Try these tips for improving sleep. A variety of strategies can be helpful, including

  • Setting a regular bedtime and wake-up time
  • Creating a dark, cosy space where you can sleep 
  • Avoiding heavy food, caffeine, and alcoholic drinks after dinner
  • Taking a bath, doing yoga, or practising meditation shortly before bed
  • Write down any worries in a journal right before getting in bed

It's particularly important to disconnect from television, social media, and other news sources before bedtime. Media often carries stories about upsetting events and natural disasters that can trigger symptoms in people who suffer from any type of traumatic stress. 

Talk with a trusted friend or loved one

It can be difficult, but opening up about your feelings to someone you trust is important. Being able to talk to someone else about your secondary trauma will help you feel less isolated. The act of speaking about the stress you're suffering can be freeing. It may also help you face the trauma so that you're able to move past it. 

You only need to share as much as you're comfortable with sharing, without breaking pupil confidentiality, of course. You might start the conversation by saying, "One of my pupils talked to me about abuse she was experiencing at home and it really affected me." Focus on letting out your feelings and worries so that you don't carry them alone.

Try a creative outlet 

Artists often use a blank page or canvas to express their internal thoughts or feelings about the world around them. You might find channelling your energy into a creative outlet helpful, particularly if you're struggling with negative thoughts and feelings. Painting, drawing, crafting, dancing, and writing are just some of the creative activities that you can try. 

Set healthy limits and boundaries

Perhaps you've heard the saying, "You can't pour from an empty cup". One of the most important things you can do if you suffer from secondary trauma is to set healthy boundaries. Educators tend to feel a strong sense of duty to their pupils. You may put yourself in upsetting or triggering situations out of a genuine desire to help them. 

However, setting healthy boundaries is essential to your own mental wellbeing. Remember that you aren't responsible for providing psychological counselling to your students. Instead, alert your school's safeguarding lead that you have a pupil who is experiencing trauma and may need help.

Celebrate your accomplishments as an educator

Secondary trauma can leave you feeling as though you've failed a pupil. Try not to give in to the temptation to dwell on these thoughts. Instead, make a list of all your accomplishments as a teacher. Think about students whose lives you've impacted positively, and share those stories with one of your colleagues. 

Experiencing secondary trauma can be overwhelming for any educator or administrator. You can get access to resources to help boost your overall wellbeing by signing up for your free Welbee Wellbeing Toolkit today. You'll find tons of information on dealing with a variety of health and wellness issues that impact educators.

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