Secondary trauma | Education Support
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Secondary trauma - teachers and education staff

Secondary trauma

Psychotherapist Ben Amponsah discusses the effects that teachers and education staff may encounter related to secondary traumatic stress, in themselves or in colleagues, and ways of dealing with it.

What is secondary trauma?

Trauma can be described as an event, or events, which result in psychological effects and shock. Secondary trauma can be experienced where, for example a student or colleague has experienced a traumatic event, and you feel the impact of their distress. It can be summed up as the cumulative effect on the educator, of dealing with traumatic events which have happened to others, for example loss of loved ones during the pandemic.

Secondary trauma can often lead to secondary traumatic stress, which causes symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder including: ‘flashbacks’ or repeating the traumatic experience over and over again; avoiding certain scenarios or situations that remind you of what you have been told; negative changes in beliefs and feelings which can lead to anxiety and depression; and hyper arousal – a feeling of always being alert and that the littlest thing can set you on edge.

There has been recent research into the effects of secondary trauma on educators, and the pandemic has exacerbated the amount of trauma those in education are having to support and deal with.

Other factors commonly associated with secondary trauma:

  • Vicarious trauma
    Very similar to secondary traumatic stress, it concerns the changes experienced to your inner world, your beliefs and feelings, as a result of empathically engaging with the traumatic experiences of others.
  • Compassion fatigue
    The reduced ability to be able to provide support after being exposed to difficult situations, it can come on quickly and is experienced as feeling numb, and not being able to engage empathetically as you may feel you should be able to.
  • Burnout
    Particularly relevant to those working in education, burnout is the result of accumulated stress, accompanied by a feeling of a lack of accomplishment, or belief in the work you are doing.  Burnout tends to come on more gradually and is a symptom of secondary traumatic stress.

It is possible that all three of these factors may be experienced, along with secondary traumatic stress, at different stages. There are also a number of other factors which may feed into burnout, especially in education. Guilt and worry, for example that some young people may not have had as much home schooling as others; worries about colleagues who may be self-isolating or having to shield and feelings of powerlessness on hearing some of the extremely difficult situations people have had to deal with.

How to deal with secondary trauma

The three key things are to be aware of these symptoms, if you know about the problem it is easier to deal with it, to look after yourself and to access support. Organisations should ideally have measures in place to help people with awareness Where your institution provides counselling services or other services such as an employee assistance programme, these should also be highlighted. 

Then there are interventions which organisations and individuals can put in place, for example critical incident stress management in the form of debriefing and providing psychological first aid.  There is also counselling which you may have access to either within your institution, or externally, and a range of other therapies such as trauma focussed cognitive behaviour therapy.  Good support from management, peer support and interaction with colleagues are also critical.

Self-care is another important factor to consider at the individual level:

  • Restorative self-care
    This is about keeping your body in good shape physically through exercise and diet, which will stand you in good stead to better deal with things on an emotional level. 
  • Recuperative self-care
    This concerns helping the mind and might include reading, mindfulness and talking to loved ones. 
  • Recreational self-care
    This is about communal activities such as holidays, going out and meeting with friends where possible, or linking up via video conferencing.

On a positive note, going through traumatic experiences will often lead to post traumatic growth, where having come through trauma can lead to:

  • enhanced relationships
  • increased altruism or feeling a higher value in friends and family
  • an improved sense of self, for example recognition of your vulnerabilities and limits
  • a sense of your personal resilience and strength

The sense of having come through a difficult and traumatic time can feel really empowering.  It might also lead to positive changes in life philosophy, appreciating the everyday more and renegotiating the things that really matter.

To conclude, especially as a result of the pandemic, some educators may have been exposed to secondary trauma, but there are ways to try and mitigate its effects.  The main thing is to be aware and to seek support. There are many sources available to you, and remember Education Support provides a free helpline you can access 24/7 and you don’t need to be in crisis to talk with the qualified counsellors about what you are experiencing.

Useful links

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff, in schools, colleges and universities, who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

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