Secondary Trauma vs Vicarious Trauma Webinar

Vicarious and Secondary Trauma: The Negativity Bias and Indirect Exposure to Impact Events


Estimated watch time: 23 mins

Available credits: none

Objectives and Summary:

In this community education webinar, Dorinda Burnham, LMHC, MS, CCTP, explores the human response to impact events, how we perceive the world around us and introduce ways to effectively respond to both personal and professional triggers to minimize stress, compassion fatigue and burnout.

After watching her presentation, the viewer will be able to:

  • Understand the impact of vicarious and secondary trauma
  • Identify triggers related to impact events and recognize the way we perceive a threat
  • Cope in healthy ways and reduce ineffective behaviors like anger and substance abuse

Presentation Materials:


Hi. I’m Dorinda Burnham, licensed mental health counselor and certified clinical trauma professional. I work in the field of mental health in private practice and help people to live their best life. I have a really strong background in trauma therapy, working with people who have dealt with difficult events and how they can build resilience based on their strength and move forward. Today, we’re talking about the way that we respond to impact events.

So, first we have to start with defining what an impact event is and how it gets to us. Impact events are incidents that happen around us or that we gain knowledge of through the re-telling of stories. For example, we may see something on the news, such as a major impact event like a mass shooting. Or, we may hear a retelling of a story by a loved one about an attack of violence they’ve either witnessed or seen through the eyes of someone else that told them.

When we get this information, we are aware of situations that can happen around us, and we often start to play in our mind a scenario where they might impact us one day. We might change the way that we respond to certain social situations. Because of this, we may feel that we are a little more triggered when we hear stories over and over that are similar. Some recent events that I can mention that may have relevance to this are things such as 9-11, Sandy Hook, Columbine and Parkland. When people hear these words, they usually associate some sort of memory to these events, whether they directly or indirectly experienced them. But we all have an idea of what happens in the world around us, and it impacts the way we respond.

When we talk about trauma, not everything is post traumatic stress disorder. We hear a lot about PTSD, but basically for this presentation, we’re generalizing trauma as anything that happens and that changes the way we respond to the world around us. What is traumatic to me may not be traumatic to you, and vice versa. We perceive a threat based on our experiences and information that we take in from several different sources.

When we start to classify trauma, whether we’re going all the way to this left-hand column of PTSD or landing somewhere between big trauma and little trauma, there’s usually a classification in the clinical field. These examples here are generalized. They’re not always represented clearly. If you look at the little trauma column, you’re going to see that something like a break-up, a loss of job, addiction, alcoholism, racism are usually classified as little trauma. Anyone who’s experienced these events usually would not classify them as little. So we really want to take these headings off and understand that the trauma is specific to the person that goes through it, their personal experiences, the impact it had on them and their resiliency to get through it.

When we talk about vicarious trauma, we talk about the different ways trauma impacts us: changing our personality, changing who we are or changing just our situation in the meantime until it’s passed. So that’s going to be the difference between vicarious and secondary trauma. We actually will start to question our moral values. We’re gonna question things that we have done in the past. It may even change the way we impact the people around us and how we deal with everyday conversations. Your moods may change. Your loss of hope may come in. You may feel emotionally numb or overwhelmed. These things take time to build in vicarious trauma whereas in secondary trauma they’re going to be dealt with in a way that feels more manageable. These will slowly sneak up on us and then really become a part of our everyday life.

So, how do we get vicarious trauma? As I said before, it can be through the news, through the media, and through things that we take in. Vicarious trauma also gets to us through our work, especially working in, say, a public safety field or a helping profession where workers are exposed to distress daily. It ends up breaking down their ideas about the world around them. Friends and family can also share experiences, fears, traumatic memories and responses, and this gets passed down through family generations. So something that happened or was perceived to happen to someone that is close to you can be passed down through the generations and end up impacting people even into the future.

Now, news and social media are the two big areas that we get information from that can break down our ideas about the world around us. We know that there’s a lot of negativity. News and media bring us information that can be very quick and easily accessible, but isn’t always accurate. Endless scrolling on social media really can increase our anxiety and depression. It’s a process that can be helpful and supportive when you use it right, when used for the purpose of connection. But a lot of times on social media, we’re getting a false sense of reality. We’re getting filtered pictures. Everyone puts on social media what they want their life to be seen as. And sometimes it’s not reality. So this creates a negative transfer of information where we perceive that we’re somehow not doing as well or not getting to a point that other people do. It breeds comparison. It breeds depression, and it can exacerbate that negative thought process that we have daily.

So let’s talk about secondary trauma. A lot of the symptoms can be similar, but usually they’re situational, too. What’s going on? Usually, these symptoms are made better if they’re recognized and attended to quickly, as they can be temporary. It makes them a little bit more manageable. The key is that we have to recognize what’s going on, want to change it and want to be able to ask for help or know where resources are.

The more we stuff down secondary trauma, the more it will lead to our body being in distress. The stress on our body can cause physical health problems, and this can lead to other issues such as compassion fatigue and burnout. Ignoring any effect of impact, event trauma can lead to compassion fatigue, burnout or moral injury. This goes for vicarious or secondary trauma when unattended over a period of time. Feelings and symptoms that are neglected lead to these processes, and a lot of times when we’re in it, we don’t realize that there is a way out of it.

When we get to this point, compassion fatigue, and talks about repetitive traumatic exposure wear down our ability to self-care and be resilient. A lot of times this is talked about in the helping professions, such as mental health, but it can actually span into taking care of loved ones who are aging. It can be taking care of children who have medical necessities or developmental issues. It requires us to do more daily and not ask for the help and support we need to also take care of ourselves.

Burnout differs in that we usually still have an ability to feel, so the compassion component and the empathy is still there. But we’re suffering, suffering mentally and physically, and we are exhausted. A lot of times, this is talked about related to workplace satisfaction and working conditions. When you change your workplace or you change your working conditions, usually you can deal with burnout just by making that difference.

Moral injury is a really profound, emotional shame that impairs our ability to do our job or attend to our morals and beliefs. Moral injury is talked about a lot in health care professions. It’s also being talked about in law enforcement, where you are seeing similar behavior, similar patterns over and over. You start assigning your actions as well as the actions of people around you to these negative behaviors, and it breaks down the morals that you have instilled in your core beliefs.

We should talk a little bit about negativity in our brain when I say that we’re negative people. It’s not that we walk around feeling depressed, and everything is this worst-case scenario. It’s that our brains are wired for protection. Our first response is to protect ourselves and the people we care about. We react. We react more strongly to things that trigger us. When we feel that there is a risk to us or people around us that we care about, we start to activate that autonomic response system. We start going into that fight-or-flight mode, and our reactions may not be ones that we would have in everyday mundane, routine, rational thought.

Bad things also grab our attention. They stick in our memories. The reason that news and media can be so effective is that we’re focused on the bad things and preparing for the worst, whereas the human interest story, maybe we’re not recalling it as readily. A lot of times we can look at our pets and their behaviors to understand how this is a negative instinct. When animals are most vulnerable, they react. If you’ve ever happened upon a herd animal, they may act with aggression. It’s easier for humans to react with anger when they’re hurt emotionally than to say they need help. It’s protective and it pushes people away when we’re trying to heal our wounds. Any pet owners that walk their dog and observe his or her behaviors while relieving themselves, they will notice that their animal is very watchful. They look around or watch you because they want to be ready in case there’s a threat or something they can’t see behind them in any state of vulnerability. We are aware of our surroundings when we know bad things are happening. When we know stressful events can occur, we’re going to be more aware of our next move, preparing to react to situations that haven’t happened yet. Our anxieties are already going to be up. It’s protective, but it’s also a negativity bias that doesn’t allow for positivity, relaxation and stress management to also exist.

It’s described in four shifts: fight, flight, freeze and mating. It is most commonly referred to as fight-or-flight, but it also has a freeze response. If you’ve ever been frightened by something and you feel absolutely paralyzed in fear, that’s your freeze response. Kicking in the mating part is that we form very close attachments with people that go through similar situations with us, any intense situation that you can expose yourself to. This often happens when we are going through, let’s say, a treatment center and a recovery process. We’re going to bond very quickly with people who are in that process with us. As we start to uncover things that are difficult for us and we’re watching other people do it, we’re going to get very attached to these people, even though we only know them for a few days or a few weeks.

These responses can be both protective and positive, but they can also be detrimental to us because that fight-or-flight response is automatic. It happens without us being able to process and think about it, and, over time, the more heightened and triggered that response gets. We start to act that way always and to any event, whether there’s a threat or not. This can lead to thought distortions over time. The more activated we are, the more it changes the way we think about the world around us.

Catastrophizing is that catastrophic thinking, it’s worst-case-scenario thinking. Living in the future and increasing your anxiety-filtered thinking means putting everything through that negative bias. You can hear that something positive happened, but you’re already trying to dispel it, discredit it or try to think about what a negative outcome would be. After you’ve received the positive news, instead of enjoying the moment, you’re personalizing that positivity as a risk. It’s taking information and making it personal or offensive to you instead of studying, stepping back and having a more zoomed-out picture about what’s going on.

Black-and-white thinking is concrete and linear thinking. It limits perception and rational thinking when we’re in any situation that triggers stress. While concrete thinking can be great as an absolute in many business models and law enforcement practices, and having a set of rules to go by can guide us, if we’re too concrete and too rigid in our thought, we’re not open to new things and new opportunities in the process when we’re triggered. We need to understand that it’s not an eighth of the transaction. There may be other things we need to take account of in other ways.

We can protect ourselves rather than always living in that fight-or-flight thinking. Risking connections is something we must talk about because we need to lean into people around us instead of pulling away. The problem is when we have exposed ourselves over and over to this negative information, no matter if it’s coming from personal contacts or from a bigger global scare that’s going on, we need to lean into people and information that we trust. We need to figure out how to embrace information and embrace other people without isolating and avoiding it, because our own negativity can take over. When we think in terms of how we keep our connections with people, even in difficult times, we feel more supported and we feel heard. We cannot let the negative and traumatic events disconnect us from our support systems.

Alcohol and drugs further create a negative cycle. They temporarily numb the feelings, and we get a false sense of feeling better, but they also increase anxiety and stress on our body. They can also reinforce patterns of avoidance, isolation, stuffing and stacking feelings. And there are consequences to substances. Use and abuse could be detrimental to daily function, work, performance, health or relationships around us. Again, it impacts not only our own physical and mental health, but it breaks down those supportive connections that we need when we’re triggered by something we deem a threat. Any type of negative response or negative feelings we have, we need to have clarity to deal with it. The use of alcohol or drugs in a time that is potentially traumatic to us can further get us down that rabbit hole of shame and guilt and all of the things that keep us stuck in that negative thought process.

So, what can you do? We’re going to experience vicarious trauma. We’re going to experience secondary trauma. We live in a world where we have to find ways to better take care of ourselves so we can respond to the world around us. One thing that can help, and the first thing on this slide, is keeping track of what’s going on, recording anything that is helpful. Any information that you can look back on gives you an idea of where you need to do the work. This could be mood-tracking, journaling or just taking time for yourself to do some sort of writing or daily record about what’s going on and what is impacting you. Make sure you’re taking time for yourself.

A suggested exercise that works a lot, and one I give my client’s homework on a lot, is doing the 10-20-10 method. This means 10 minutes of quiet reflection, affirmations or self-care in the morning when you first get up, then 20 minutes midday involving some sort of physical activity or some sort of movement. How many people eat lunch right at their desk every day instead of getting up and moving around, stepping outside, having a conversation, maybe with someone you haven’t talked to in a while? Do things that build connection, do things that physically make you feel better, and then you do another 10 minutes before bed. This could be something that’s part of your sleep routine. Preparing for bed, taking a hot shower, or drinking a warm camomile tea. Do something that gets you into a relaxation mode: reading quietly in some low light, listening to soft music, listening to a guided meditation, something that gets you in a place of relaxation. And by doing those three small increments each day, you’re already starting to build healthy habits for yourself.

Practicing positivity is key, with all the negative information we get every single day. This is crucial to being able to stabilize our moods and their reaction to the world around us. Positivity does not mean you always have to be happy and cheerful and laughing. Positivity is knowing that things will get better eventually, or at least taking time to be grateful for what you have or for the moment you’re in.

The next step is getting connected. You have to talk to friends and family and ask for help. This includes setting healthy boundaries, being able to have healthy conversations for things that you need in your process and being aware that your needs should be met by a positive support system.

Mindfulness and meditation is a great way to slow your thoughts and explore breath work or grounding techniques that are gonna help you center any thoughts that get you a little anxious every day. When you hear negative news, counteract it by building some mindfulness with a few minutes of taking deep breaths. Go for a walk, observe things in nature, listen to music. Quietly have something that counteracts and neutralizes the negative intake, and you’ll find more stability in your response.

After that, the big, big thing to take away is you need to talk about it beyond asking for assistance from your family. Seek assistance from professionals in the field. I talked to a therapist and there’s a huge stigma still. Asking for help with mental health is just a process of talking through things you need. Mental health therapy is being able to figure out the answers through talking with someone who is non-judgmental, not emotionally connected and not specifically reactive to the things that you are. It’s a safe and secure environment to figure out the next steps for you. Therapists are not here to give you advice or tell you what to do but to merely guide you until you can find the information you need to make better choices for you.

Another great thing you can do is exercise. Physical movement boosts your mood by elevating those feel-good hormones. It activates that same reward center part of your brain that we typically talk about surrounding substances that are going to boost things temporarily. The great thing with exercise is that as you do it, it will become a healthy habit that you will want to continue to do. Your body will start to respond in ways that are healthier because it feels better. As we’re starting to build this exercise in, it decreases stress and it increases your motivation. So especially if you already have some anxiety and depression and things that you need to regulate with your moods, building healthy exercise and diet into your day can help you manage these symptoms. When you’re triggered by an event, you don’t react and you rationally respond.

The last thing is you have to have is self-compassion. You are always enough. No matter where you are or what you’re doing or how you’re reacting. There’s always a way to sit there in that moment and say, “This is enough for right now.” I am enough for right now. You let yourself know that you’re doing the best you can. We often treat people in our lives that we care about even better than we treat ourselves. You have to become the most important person in your life so you could be there to help other people. Because without taking care of yourself, you can’t do that for very long. Your tank runs empty. Be kind to you.

Thank you so much for joining us for this presentation.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.