Secondary traumatic stress: the carers curse!

Feeling unusually low, exhausted, irritable and generally flat?  Are you unable to shift your mood with the things you usually turn to for enjoyment? Drinking just a little too much, fighting with your friends and family? Burning the dinner and kicking the cat?

Then you could be experiencing the early signs of secondary traumatic stress. Otherwise known as work related stress, common syndromes of which are; burnout and compassion fatigue.

What is STS?

Secondary traumatic stress is the natural consequence of feelings, emotions and behaviours resulting in hearing about or experiencing traumatic events, and hearing stories from others being in working environments with ever increasing organizational demands.

Working with vulnerable individuals, experiencing their experiences either through emotional and/or physical contact can lead us into those very same feelings and moods. Add to this the demands of long working hours, increase in paper work and lack of peer support; the likely hood of developing STS becomes almost unavoidable without professional support.

Who is at risk?

In truth, anyone dealing with people, anyone involved in human relationships and anyone working in environments where long hours, increases in task orientated goals, a lack of peer support, insufficient training and limited psychological attention to mental well-being creates a perfect breading ground for the symptoms of STS. Those of us in helping professions will at some point or another experience either or both of these syndromes.

Burnout and compassion fatigue have a devastating impact on both our working relationships and our personal lives. These cumulative changes have not just an impact on the employee but on the organisation and the service provided to service users.

 What are the signs?

Burnout is cumulative and creeps up on us over a period of time. Compassion fatigue is much more acute, we can be OK one minute and flying off the handle the next. In many helping professions these syndromes co-exist. Common symptoms are:

  • apathy
  • anger
  • low mood
  • low morale
  • lack of motivation
  • breakdown in communication
  • lowered immune symptom
  • reduced general functioning
  • increase in self destructive behaviours
  • problems in relationships with others.

As we struggle to separate work from home, colleagues from friends, time at play to time at work we become increasingly detached, agitated, introspective and we find ourselves less and less able to manage the balance of our lives.

It’s like we are eaten up from the inside out. Constantly giving to others leaves us emotionally depleted with little for ourselves or our families. When this happens we need to find ways in which we replenish those emotional banks. We need to feed ourselves.

 What helps?

Talking to another person for support. Reflective supervision groups provide safe, confidential, peer group settings in which to discuss and off-load the psychological aspects of the working environment. They help us to connect, reduce isolation and give us the reassurance and validation so often lacking in caring professions. You can help yourself by:

  • getting enough rest
  • eating stress busting foods
  • maintaining a balanced work/play schedule
  • taking a time out
  • taking up a hobby
  • doing moderate exercise
  • developing self awareness
  • developing communication skills
  • tell the boss
  • tell the family
  • seek help and support.

What doesn’t help?

  • using alcohol
  • bottling up feelings
  • violence
  • conflict
  • blaming others
  • working too much
  • risky behaviour
  • avoiding talking to others
  • avoiding help
  • withdrawing from pleasant experiences.

STS will affect all of us at some time or another. So rather than ignore it, be one step ahead. Helping others can be hugely rewarding but it can also be hugely exhausting. To be the best you can be to those in need, you need to be the best you can be to you.

There is no shame in seeking help. You may be surprised, when you start to talk, others will follow.

Nicole Addis

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 & Newcastle Upon Tyne NE18
Written by Nicole Addis, DTC. Dip. MSc UKCP reg. Psychotherapist Supervisor /Trainer
Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 & Newcastle Upon Tyne NE18

Nicole Addis is a UKCP registered counsellor and psychotherapist. She currently runs Peel Psychological Consultancy, a private counselling service and is actively involved in running workshops and seminars to promote workplace well being and self development. Contact 07711689951 or email

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