How to Cope with Secondary Traumatic Stress in Nursing and Healthcare Settings

NursingApril 04, 2023

April is Stress Awareness Month and a good time to take stock of some of the mental health issues that can affect you as a nurse on the job. One of those is secondary trauma or secondary traumatic stress (STS), which can be a byproduct of working in healthcare. It may sound grim, but if you are aware of what secondary traumatic stress is and understand how to address it, you can stay ahead of its effect. Here’s what to know. 

What is Secondary Trauma? 

Secondary trauma is a component of compassion fatigue. It’s the exposure through your job as a nurse to someone else’s extreme stress or trauma, whether physical or emotional. If you work as an emergency department nurse, for example, you’re exposed to medical emergencies on an ongoing basis that can take a toll on you.

If you work as an oncology or pediatric nurse, you work with cancer patients and children experiencing serious, and sometimes fatal, conditions. STS can result from experiencing too much empathy when your patients are suffering. In short, it’s the cost of caring, the psychological side effect of helping others. Nurses aren’t the only healthcare workers who experience it.

Know the Signs

The first step to protecting your mental health is to know the signs of STS. It’s better to prevent it before you start to feel its effects. Symptoms of secondary trauma to watch for include:

  • Low concentration
  • Apathy
  • Intrusive thoughts (or preoccupation with trauma)
  • Jumpiness
  • Sadness
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Sleep or appetite changes
  • Hypervigilance or elevated startle response

How to Prevent or Treat STS

Taking care of yourself is not selfish, though sometimes it can feel that way. But it’s the equivalent of “putting on your own oxygen mask first” so you can continue to be effective in your work. Whether on the job or on your own time, it’s important to make time to decompress.

  • Take time to have fun and laugh. It’s important to change the mood of your day-to-day reality.
  • Get outside. Taking a walk is a known mood-booster because it releases endorphins. If you can head to a park with greenery, that’s even better.  
  • Make time to reflect on your own or with a colleague. That might be journaling, meditating, or talking with a trusted confidante. 
  • Build in balance. Try to manage your day so you have time for yourself. 

If you get to the point of experiencing STS symptoms, you may need to seek more support.

  • Join a support group. Talking with others who’ve experienced something similar can offer hope and new perspectives. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project will deepen your understanding of the issue.
  • Talk to a professional. It may be necessary to talk to a counselor who specializes in trauma. They can help you understand and process your symptoms.    

Feeling empathy for your patients is part of a nurse’s job. It’s part of what makes nurses so good at what they do, and that’s a good thing. But it’s equally important to know the signs of empathy tipped too far for your own emotional wellness. Balance is key to the profession. 

If you’re interested in a career in nursing, St. Paul’s School of Nursing is here to help you with the next steps. Learn more about our associate degree nursing program and give us a call at (855) 822-3018 to speak to one of our admissions advisors or to schedule a campus tour.