Secondary Traumatic Stress in Caregivers

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Family Education

We’ve all heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Maybe our loved one has even been diagnosed with it.  However, another form of stress disorder may often affect the caregiver of a loved one. A family member living in support of a loved one with a mental health condition often faces compassion fatigue. This is also referred to as “Secondary Traumatic Stress,” or STS.

STS may occur when on-going mental health crises disrupt a caregiver’s life and the life of the rest of family. The caregiver may be frightened by the actions or words their loved one exhibits. As a result, these experiences can have lasting effects for the caregiver.

Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress

So how do you know if you are experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress? Below are some symptoms that you may experience when caring for your loved one with mental health issues:

    • Hyper-vigilance
    • Re-experiencing events in your head
    • Feeling depressed
    • Loss of empathy for your loved one
    • Sense of persecution
    • Guilt
    • Anger
    • Problems sleeping
    • Challenges with concentration
    • Exhaustion
    • Appetite change
    • Loss of creativity
    • Impaired immune system

Getting Support for Secondary Traumatic Stress

There are a lot of articles on the web for STS in veterans and health care workers. However, there is less conversation about STS in caregivers of a loved one with mental health conditions. Although, many of the parents I’ve talked with experience it. Supporting a loved one with mental illness can be can be very traumatic. For instance, their behaviors toward us can sometimes be outrageous and hurtful, leaving us feeling traumatized.

So what can you do if you suspect you are experiencing STS? Families and caregivers need just as much support as loved ones experiencing a mental health condition. Therefore, effective practical and emotional support can make a huge difference supporting families working together toward a more peaceful life. Many therapists are aware of, and deal with this issue regularly. Oftentimes, a good therapist can really help dispel traumatic feelings.

A technique that some therapists use is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. EMDR can weaken the effect of negative emotions. Lateral eye movements are used while recalling the trauma. This helps to process the trauma and, under the direction of a therapist, “rewire” the brain while formulating positive beliefs. You can find more information about EMDR in this article.  EMDR can be a very effective way to overcome STS. EMDR is used successfully for PTSD, and a therapist I saw used it with me for STS. It really did help me to dispel “triggers” that my loved one often brought on.

Self-Care for Secondary Traumatic Stress

Above all, self-care is also very important in dealing with STS. Do this by finding time to clear your mind and focus on yourself. Here are some suggestions, based on the Mayo Clinic website below:

    • Focus on what you can do. It’s normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a “perfect” caregiver. Know that you are doing the best you can.
    • Set realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time. Prioritize, make lists, and establish a daily routine. Begin to say no to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals.
    • Get connected. Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Many communities have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing.
    • Join a support group. A support group can provide validation and encouragement, as well as problem-solving strategies for difficult situations. People in support groups understand what you may be going through. A support group can also be a good place to create meaningful friendships. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers free support groups.
    • Seek social support. Make an effort to stay well-connected with family and friends who can offer nonjudgmental emotional support. Set aside time each week for connecting, even if it’s just a walk with a friend.
    • Set personal health goals. For example, set goals to establish a good sleep routine, find time to be physically active on most days of the week, eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of water.
    • Get enough sleep. Many caregivers have issues with sleeping. Not getting quality sleep over a long period of time can cause health issues. If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, talk to your doctor.
    • See your doctor. Get recommended vaccinations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you’re a caregiver. Don’t hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms you have.

In conclusion, caregiving can be exhausting, but it also teaches us patience, empathy and resilience. And those are some of the best qualities we can have when dealing with others and ourselves.

Additional Resources: