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Primary and Secondary Trauma

When one considers the experience of a traumatic event, whether witnessing it directly, or being in the midst of it, the most common thoughts are of war, and/or natural disasters, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Furthermore, it is thought, that often individuals who have been a part of these said events, will exhibit various thoughts, feelings, emotions,  and even exhibit behaviors- that are suffered from long after the actual trauma has occurred. This is commonly referred to, as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Trauma is however, when it comes to the nature of it, not always cut and dry. It is not always about war, and/or natural disasters. Trauma can come in many forms, and in many experiences. For some, a traumatic situation could be dealing with the unexpected loss of a beloved job, or the unexpected loss of a loved one. It can in fact be argued, that trauma can be the experiencing of any event, in which an individual’s perception of what is safe and ‘normal’ is altered (Psychology Today, 2016).

There are essentially, two different types of trauma: Primary and Secondary. 
Primary trauma is defined as trauma that one is a part of. They witnessed the actual event(s), and/or were knee deep in the throes of the experience. An example of this, would be someone that attended the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas, and while they were unharmed during the shooting, saw individuals being shot at, or killed.

Secondary trauma is defined as trauma that while one may not have been present for the particular traumatic event, they may have been close by, or they were exposed to the aftermath of it, or, the traumatic event(s) are relayed to that person over and over (for example in the case of a therapist that is working with trauma survivors), and this person begins to experience symptoms very similar to individuals with primary trauma.

Speaking of the Las Vegas example that I gave with primary trauma, I myself, actually experienced secondary trauma from that horrific event. Without going into too much detail, I arrived in Las Vegas that night for a conference. My cab driver drove me right by the site, on route to my respective hotel at what turned out to be within 2 minutes of the shooting beginning. I was oblivious to anything, until my phone was being blown up at 4:00 a.m. PST (7:00 a.m. here) by friends and family who were concerned for me. After piecing everything together, and subsequently being in Las Vegas for the next 4 days after, I began to realize that I was experiencing secondary trauma symptoms. Increasingly edgy, sad, spontaneous crying spells, looking over my shoulder constantly, and then, the biggest indicator, was actually after I returned home. That Saturday night following the shooting, I was supposed to go to a concert of one of my favorite bands. I couldn’t do it. The idea of being in a concert environment again, so soon after what I had just experienced in Las Vegas was too much (side note: I am still working thru this issue).

It is important to note, that no one is immune to the post traumatic stress symptoms that I have described above-whether a primary trauma sufferer, or a secondary sufferer.

Individuals that experience this, and/or have been a part of it, may have problems following the event(s) in their close personal relationships and with self-esteem and confidence building (Psychology Today: October, 2017).

One who has experienced trauma, and PTSD symptoms, whether primary or secondary, does not have to suffer in silence. Some suggestions of how to cope with and make sense of traumatic experiences or tragedies include the following:

    1.    Acknowledge the feelings that you are having. Do not try to bury them, or get rid of them. This will end up delaying the process of healing that you need to work thru.

    2.    Do something active or proactive related to the trauma. Consider donating your time or energy towards a cause related to the nature of the trauma. For example, one of the things I did while I was in Las Vegas was get on a list to offer my services while there as a volunteer crisis counselor. They did not end up contacting me, but to have just made the attempt while there, helped me feel that I was giving back in some way.

   3.    Focus on the good that exists. There is in reality, a lot of good in the world, and trauma(s) do not happen all the time. It is very easy in the face of horrible situations to believe that it is constant, and all about pain. It is important to be mindful of the positives that we have in our lives -especially when faced with the negative intensity that trauma evokes.

    4.    Speak to a therapist or counselor such as myself that has experience in trauma and/or PTSD symptoms, and can help you sort out your feelings and coach you in learning positive coping tools.

~Tricia Stehle, LMSW , Psychotherapist

About the Author


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