Can a First Responder’s Family Experience Secondary Trauma?

Can a First Responder’s Family Experience Secondary Trauma?

Published on August 5, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

First responders go to work knowing full well that they risk being exposed to traumatic events on a daily basis. Feeling the mental exhaustion that comes with seemingly never-ending exposure to emotionally-scarring moments can pose many risks for first responders recovering from addiction. As long-term trauma builds, it can have a major impact on these first responders and their loved ones.

The effects of trauma are far-reaching, and many experience the ensuing stress in an indirect manner. Secondary trauma can often be found in both first responders as well as their friends and family. This lesser-known manifestation of trauma can come on suddenly, leading many to assume they are experiencing an uptick in stress, panic, or anxiety.

Though these symptoms may fly under the radar, they can have lasting side effects. If a first responder feels like they may have or are currently experiencing trauma, it’s important to know what they are dealing with and how to approach recovery.

A Closer Look at Secondary Trauma

Through the process of empathizing with first responders, friends and family open themselves up to taking on the burden of trauma. Trauma’s long-term repercussions can appear in those who traumatized first responders confide in, particularly when they are coping with addiction. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress can show up within the people who are closest to anyone dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For those who live with first responders, the unique predicament of caring for their hardship runs parallel to the boundaries necessary for avoiding unhealthy codependency. However, empathizing with loved ones comes as second nature to many. It’s important to be aware of the risks of secondary trauma when entering into a relationship with a first responder, as empathy can decay into resentment unless emotional boundaries are defined and respected.

Taking on someone’s trauma can lead to feelings of frustration, stress, and exhaustion. If a loved one begins neglecting their own personal needs in an effort to help another recover from their trauma, it may be an indication of developing secondary traumatic stress. There are many other signs that hint towards secondary trauma.

Common Signs of Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma is expressed through many different channels and tends to vary considerably in intensity from person to person. Physically, secondary trauma can look much like depression symptoms on the surface (inescapable fatigue, constantly feeling behind on sleep, etc.) while emotionally, one is likely to succumb to feelings of numbness. Alcohol and/or substance use might increase as a coping mechanism, particularly for anyone who is dealing with addiction in conjunction with trauma.

Similarly, secondary traumatic stress can be evidenced by a decrease in job performance and general attitude surrounding work. One might spend less time with family and friends, opting to cope with the trauma in less healthy ways instead of fostering personal relationships. Overall, this trauma occupies a greater space within the mind’s capacity for processing feelings, emotions, and memories.

Who Experiences Secondary Trauma?

Friends and family of first responders are likely to experience an onset of secondary trauma, but they are not alone in their risk of exposure. Trauma counselors, educators, and even first responders themselves can develop secondary traumatic stress.

First responders must be aware that they can experience primary or secondary trauma from working alongside those recovering from PTSD. Hearing the stories of harrowing events from co-workers can yield symptoms of traumatic stress, particularly as the culture of many first response workplaces provide safety warnings through cautionary tales.

The work culture surrounding first responders creates a breeding ground for multiple forms of trauma. First responders in recovery from alcohol and/or substance addiction are prone to coping with trauma through more self-destructive means. Those who have past experience battling addiction are much more likely to relapse unless they seek help working through their trauma.

How to Manage Secondary Trauma

Checking in with yourself about the state of your mental health is the crucial first step to managing trauma. If you feel like you are experiencing any of the symptoms of secondary trauma — anxiety, obsessive thinking, depression — or if a loved one appears to have these symptoms, seeking out the guidance of a trained counselor will help to provide strategies for coping with the resulting levels of stress.

Staying consistent with a healthy diet, along with regular exercise and even artistic expression, are great ways to channel this stress. These seemingly ordinary lifestyle choices can stimulate blood flow and cognitive functions so that the negative side effects of trauma are broken down into more digestible moments. As a first responder, taking your needs — and the needs of your friends and family — seriously is a nuanced, yet essential part of a fulfilling life.

Few aspects of a first responder’s job are easy. Even the immediate support groups of first responders can experience the strain of their line of work via changing relationship dynamics. Families of first responders often experience secondary trauma due to their loved one’s experiences. True Recovery’s First Responders Treatment Program offers a four-day intensive family program that encompasses education, psychotherapy, and interactive groups to address family dynamics and any aftermath from your loved one’s addiction. Families are also encouraged to participate in a bi-weekly continuing care group on the second and fourth Thursday of every month. If you or a loved one is experiencing primary or secondary trauma, you can seek recovery and healing through our First Responders Treatment Program. We are available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To learn more, call us today at (888) 743-0490.