May 23 2024

Recognizing Secondary Trauma

by Toby LeBlanc

The children CASA serves have gone through so much. It’s hard to imagine the traumas they have faced. But did you know that being in proximity to trauma can also affect CASA volunteers and staff? Similar to ripples in a pond when a stone is tossed in, the center of the ripples has the most impact and is the place where the disturbance happens. But the ripples grow outward, carrying that energy further and further out. 

Secondary trauma is what happens when our nervous systems can’t help but take on some of the charge from negative events others experience. It is a sign of how impactful the event was, how much we care about the person, and our own humanity. A person may begin to experience symptoms akin to what the person who actually experienced the trauma goes through. This can include constantly feeling like something bad is about to happen, irritability, jumping to solutions (before completely understanding the problem or person), and higher levels of guilt or cynicism. While this doesn’t not feel normal (and should not, really) it is an understandable response to the act of consistently bearing witness to the difficulties others face.  

Similar to when we experience large, overarching physical ailments, it is not just the identified patient who experiences the effect of the disease. Continuing with the metaphor of the ripples, a person experiencing secondary trauma will be carrying this energy beyond the place of impact. Recognizing our reactions to hearing the painful stories of others allows us to appreciate our ripple in the impact and be mindful of how we carry that energy. The more we act to manage disruption from the impact, and the more we remain present, means we can better restore the pond to a calm, still place. 

So what can you do to manage your ripple? The first is to notice you have become dysregulated by the trauma(s) you have witnessed. Check in with yourself to notice the symptoms mentioned above (as well as others at If you recognize them, create goals for how you will take care of yourself emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. You can start by asking yourself some questions: 

  • What would allow me to let all this feeling out in a constructive way? 
  • What is something that makes my life make sense again? Is it a place? Activity? 
  • What are the reasons I do this work? What is my purpose here? What helps me reconnect with it? 
  • Who do I turn to when I need help centering myself? 

Never forget the last line of this list: there is a ripple (i.e. another person you trust) behind you that will help you in his difficult moment. Identifying the people who can hold your energy while you attend to difficult moments will ensure you have support while you embody the healing energy this moment needs. If nothing else, know that just showing up, bearing witness, and holding space for such challenging stories is the powerful work of a ripple.  

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