Secondary Trauma and Compassion Fatigue

Vicarious or secondary trauma refers to the cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological toll that can occur when we are exposed to the suffering, hardship, crisis, or trauma of others. It is the impact from exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life. There is a toll individually, individually, organizationally, and societally. Other terms used include trauma exposure response, compassion fatigue, empathic strain, or trauma stewardship.

 Historical and cultural trauma can intensify the impact.

  • The events we experience, witness, remember and store in our body can impact our ability to cope.

  • Events can overwhelm the ordinary responses that give us a sense of control, connection and meaning.

  • We can be left feeling helpless and our world view may be impacted.

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.
— Rachel Remen

Trauma exposure responses

Trauma exposure responses include our feelings and behaviors and are natural responses that flow from our humanity. The effects of secondary trauma are similar to those experienced by victims and survivors themselves (1). The following are potential warning signs of trauma exposure response.

Trauma Exposure Response

Trauma Stewardship

In this talk, Laura offers us a window into the cumulative toll that can occur when we are exposed to the suffering, hardship, crisis or trauma of humans, other living beings, or the planet itself. Held within a larger context of systematic oppression and liberation theory, we'll dive into what gets hard and how to work toward reconciling it both individually and collectively.

 “Trauma stewardship refers to how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences. When we talk about trauma in terms of stewardship, we remember that we are being entrusted with people’s stories and their very lives. As stewards, we create a space for and honor others’ hardship and suffering, and yet we don’t assume their pain as our own. We care for others to the best of our ability without taking on their paths as our paths. To participate in trauma stewardship is to always remember the privilege and sacredness of being called to help. It means maintaining our highest ethics, integrity, and responsibility every step of the way.” Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

Cultivating our capacity to be present

One of things Laura invites us to do individually and collectively is to “continue to strive to cultivate our capacity to be present. We remind ourselves with everything that is out of our control, one of the things remains in our control is our ability to bring our exquisite quality of presence to what you are doing and how we are being. From this place of presence it is possible to aspire to do no harm, to transform whatever trauma arises, and to continue to work to dismantle systems of oppression which is causing such a legacy of suffering (2).” 

Organizational responses

Organizations have the potential to either mitigate or exacerbate the effects of trauma exposure for all of their workers. When people perceive their organizations as supportive, they experience lower levels of vicarious trauma (3).

Here are some examples of prevention strategies organizations can incorporate to address secondary trauma :

  • Psychoeducation
  • Clinical supervision
  • Ongoing skills training
  • Workplace self care groups (yoga, meditation)
  • Flextime scheduling
  • Good health/nutrition

Multiplying Connections provides a useful resource on Reflective Supervision for providers faced with the traumas of the families they work with. Click here to download a white paper on Reflective Supervision from Multiplying Connections. 

  1. Yoder, Carolyn (2005) The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Is Threatened (Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding) Good Books
  2. van Dernoot Lipsky, Laura (2009). Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. Berrett-Koehler Publishers
  3. Golie Jansen (2004) Vicarious Trauma and Its Impact on Advocates, Therapists, and Friends,”Research & Advocacy Digest 6, no. 2
  4. Van Berckelaer, Anje. Using Reflective Supervision to Support Trauma-Informed Systems for Children. Accessed at on April 13, 2018