What is secondary trauma?

By David Joel Miller

Can you be traumatized by something that did not happen to you?


Trauma car crash photo from wikimedia

Secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma is the traumatic result of watching someone else be injured or their life threatened.  It is just as real as if the incident happened to you and can last long after the incident is over.

One place where we saw a lot of secondary trauma, this might also go by the name of vicarious trauma, was the incidents of September 11th. Children who watched the planes fly into the towers over and over on Television became frightened even though the events were thousands of miles away. They believed, because of the repeated showings, that thousands of planes were hitting thousands of buildings and that any moment the planes might hit buildings in their neighborhood.

This points out that events do not need to happen to you to be traumatic.  Watching a close family member be injured or killed can be as traumatic as if it happened to you. One reason there seems to be more Post-traumatic Stress Disorders among military veterans is the number of horrific incidents they witness during a tour of duty.

Watching others you are close to being killed or injured has a traumatic effect on you even if you are far enough away to escape injury.

Humans are endowed with very vivid imaginations. Which raises the question can people be traumatized by fictional things, things that never happened?

As we grow older our ability to distinguish reality from fiction should improve. Young children are not always able to tell the difference. Plenty of children develop fears, night terrors or long-term phobias because adults watch horror or other graphic entertainment. They allow the kids to watch along with them since the adults are not overly frightened they expect the child to be able to understand the difference.

Unfortunately many young children these days are not able to tell the real from the imaginary especially in video format where great effort has been expended to make the horror as realistic as possible.

So whether the trauma was real or imagined, whether it happened to you or someone you know and care about, those traumas can and do traumatize people. We call this trauma, secondary traumatization because the victim of the physical attack may not be the person who suffers the most or the longest.

If you have been traumatized by watching someone else be harmed there is help. If your child develops fears or phobias after watching a video, talk with them about reality and fiction. If the problems continue get professional help.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books


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