Secondary PTSD: What is it and how do I know if I have it? by Sarah Billingsley, LMSW

Sarah Billingsley

I grew up in a military family where PTSD was an ongoing conversation in my home. My father is an empathetic man who always offered an open hand and an open couch when any of his Marines were in need. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears at a young age the importance of dealing with the impact of trauma. However, I was unaware of how family members or anyone close to someone with PTSD could develop similar mental health issues due to the stress caused by witnessing trauma against a loved one or knowing a loved one has experienced horrific things in life. In fact, I did not even learn that there are different forms of PTSD until I was in my bachelors’ program in college.

So, the burning questions here are: What exactly is Secondary PTSD? How is it caused? And, how do I know if I have it?

Secondary PTSD is a form of PTSD which is caused by the trauma of learning that someone we love has experienced a traumatizing event. While Secondary PTSD is not an official diagnosis, most mental health professionals recognize this phenomenon as a reality in our patients. Maybe you have learned your sister was sexually abused, witnessed someone you love being abused, or you heard about a dearly loved family member who experienced combat trauma. The emotions we feel when we sympathize with those we love can cause similar symptoms to that of someone who directly experienced the traumatic incident. Why? Well, humans have a tendency to over-sympathize which causes us to quite literally take on the emotions of those around us, especially when discussing emotionally distressing topics. It’s as if we love someone so hard that we begin to feel the depression, anger, and guilt of those who directly experienced the trauma. Those of us who work in helping professions- medics, social workers, therapists, nurses- tend to hear extremely traumatic stories from patients. It can be extremely difficult to differentiate between empathy and sympathy. This can sometimes cause professionals to take on the emotions of clients which can lead to the development of Secondary PTSD.

Now, how do you know if you have Secondary PTSD? The symptoms can be similar to full-blown PTSD symptoms. Depression, irritability, trouble concentrating and difficulty sleeping are common symptoms as the brain begins to process the trauma. Secondary PTSD can also cause nightmares, emotional distress and loss of interest in daily activities. If you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event, learning of or witnessing a traumatic event involving someone they know, I can help. You are not alone.

Sarah Billingsley, LMSW (928) 919-3401

Let It Rain Psychotherapy, PLLC

1901 Central Drive Suite 716 Bedford Texas 76021


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