The Cost of Caring:
Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Impact of Working with High-Risk Children and Families

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Lesson 3: Self-Care Strategies for Combating Secondary Trauma

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Self-Care Strategies for Combating Secondary Trauma

Now that you have a better understanding of what Secondary Trauma is, and you have completed the survey of your own exposure to it, we must identify ways to  combat the symptoms.  Understanding your own needs and responding appropriately is of paramount importance in combating secondary traumatic stress. It is also critically important to balance work and play. Working with children and families who have been traumatized is immensely rewarding in many respects. However, it is also often frustrating, discouraging and painful to listen to children describe how they have been harmed. Recall some of the indicators of distress:  distressing emotions, intrusive imagery of the client’s traumatic experiences, numbing or avoidance of work with clients or related material, physical complaints, addictive or compulsive behaviors, and/or impairment of day-to-day functioning in professional and personal situations.  These reactions to very difficult situations are normal and are experienced by helping professionals on a daily basis.  The purpose of this course is not only to educate you on Secondary Trauma but to help you better understand your reactions to exposure to trauma.  We also hope that you'll finish the course feeling as though you have found additional ways to successfully continue your efforts with traumatized clients.

There is no better way to combat secondary traumatic stress than to take good care of your physical and mental health. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by feelings of frustration and sadness it is very important to engage in activities that are both healthy and considered fun or playful. More specifically, it is important to eat nutritious meals and exercise regularly. Take time to self-reflect, write in a journal, read books unrelated to your work and seek out new activities such as going to an art museum, attending a sports event or seeing a performance at a theater. Spending time with emotionally healthy children who can bring joy, hope and meaning to our lives is important. Child mental health professionals also need to set aside time to rest, emotionally and physically, both their minds and their hearts. Examples of emotional self-care include: spending time with friends and family; seeking out important people in your life; praising yourself; allowing yourself to cry; and finding things to laugh about. They need to connect with their communities in ways other than through their work - perhaps helping a neighbor, joining a garden club or just sitting on the back porch and enjoy the sights and sounds of a warm, sunny day.

You can also take better care of yourself while at work. Taking a break during the workday; making quiet time to complete tasks, setting limits with your clients and colleagues and diversifying the tasks in your workload can be very helpful (Saakvitne and Pearlman, 1996).  Learning to say “no!” is another way of managing stress both at work and in your personal life.  Learn to read yourself.  If you find that you are overwhelmed, set clear boundaries and allow yourself the space and, if possible, time to recover.  Asking for help also reduces stress. 

Strategies for Avoiding Secondary Trauma 

Understanding and responding to one’s own needs is the essence of an effective self-care strategy for those in helping professions.  Learning to balance work and play is an important place to begin.  Those who work in stressful helping environments often find it difficult to leave work at the office when it is time to go home.  This may include replaying situations or conversations over in their head or continuing to mentally work through issues even when the paperwork is left behind.  Clearly setting boundaries of “their time” and “my time” is an important step to regaining control over your life.  Creating time for rest and leisure is part of this.  Finding activities that focus your mind and body elsewhere, such as reading, hiking, sports, napping, or playing with children, aid in clearly separating work time from leisure. 

Maintaining a positive view of the world is also important.  When working with clients who have experienced trauma, it may become easy to believe that the world is falling apart or that people are going mad.  Remember that, although bad things happen and people are affected, there is a lot of good that goes on as well.  Work to look for the good in people and situations.  Remember the good you are doing. 

Use workplace supervision to your advantage.  Talking about what you are feeling and how your work is affecting you not only provides an outlet for your feelings but may also allow your supervisor to understand your needs and likely your fellow caseworkers needs as well.  Your supervisor may be able to help you strategize ways of handling work related stress.


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