Recognizing the Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress

Recognizing the Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress
The Editorial Team January 6, 2020

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You love your students. And many of them come to school with traumatic backgrounds and stories that hurt your heart and affect you down to your soul. You listen. You care. You do everything you can to help these children manage and survive. But the most important element in helping others is being able to help yourself.

As an educator, it’s so important to recognize that the trauma you hear about each day may be traumatizing you as well.

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)  is preventable and treatable. However, if unaddressed, it can result in continuous mental and physical health problems, strained relationships, and diminished work productivity.

Take a moment to protect your health and your ability to continue helping your students by recognizing the symptoms of STS. 

What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Caring for your students can sometimes take an emotional toll with the potential to compromise your health and professional abilities. Working with children suffering from traumatic experiences and being an empathetic listener can put you at risk for STS. Secondary Traumatic Stress is an observable reaction to at least one indirect exposure to trauma. 

Warning signs

STS can impact both physical and mental facets of your life. Many symptoms of STS can mirror the symptoms of PTSD and can range from mild to debilitating.

Symptoms to be aware of: 

  • Feelings of isolation, hopelessness, persistent anger, and/or anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances and nightmares.
  • Reduced productivity, diminished concentration, cynicism, and confusion
  • Avoidance of people or everyday activities
  • Physical ailments and fatigue

Rate your symptoms

Compassion for your students can affect you in positive and negative ways. Rate the following symptoms to reflect on your current emotional and physical well-being. Select the number that most honestly reflects your experiences in the last 30 days.

1 = Never

2 = Rarely

3 = Sometimes   

4 = Often

5 = Very Often

  • I am preoccupied with more than one person I help.
  • I jump or am startled by unexpected sounds.
  • I find it difficult to separate my personal life from my life as a helper.
  • I think that I might have been affected by the traumatic stress of those I help. 
  • Because of my helping, I have felt “on edge” about various things.
  • I feel depressed because of the traumatic experiences of the people I help. 
  • I feel as though I am experiencing the trauma of someone I have helped. 
  • I avoid certain activities or situations because they remind me of frightening experiences of the people I help.
  • As a result of my helping, I have intrusive, frightening thoughts.. 
  • I can’t recall important parts of my work with trauma victims. 

Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale

Add up your ratings for each of the statements above. Find your score to the right.

Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale Table

Sum of Secondary Trauma statements

Secondary Traumatic Stress level

22 or less


Between 23 and 41


42 or more


Next steps

Awareness is key to managing Secondary Traumatic Stress. A high score may not mean you have STS, but it should propel an examination of your health and well-being.

First steps toward your well-being can be scary but know you are not alone. Others are experiencing similar effects. Even some of the most seasoned professionals find themselves struggling with STS. Find support to deal with these symptoms. You may wish to discuss your feelings with a supervisor, colleague, or a healthcare professional.

Invest in self-care strategies that can aid in preventing and healing symptoms of STS.

  • Seek professional support. Sharing your struggle with a colleague or supervisor can help with the real struggles of STS. But a healthcare professional may be better suited to providing treatment options best suited to your symptoms.
  • Make positive lifestyle choices. A healthy diet, exercise, and regular sleep can help reduce stress. Check out our post, 5 Healthy Comfort Foods to Help You Survive the Winter, for some tips!
  • Invest some time in relaxation techniques. Ensuring downtime to calm and relax your body and mind has countless benefits for you and your struggles. Try meditation, yoga, or stretching.
  • Journal. Putting experiences, thoughts, and feelings down on paper can help put them into perspective, as well as add clarity. Consider taking time each morning or evening to express yourself in words or images to help make meaning out of your symptoms.
  • Join a support group. Sharing experiences and working through coping strategies with others who are experiencing similar symptoms can offer much needed optimism and support. The Happy Teacher Revolution is one example of a support group framework that teachers can implement with other colleagues.
  • Learn new self-care strategies. Adopting new self-care options can reduce adverse symptoms of STS and help prevent future distress. We are dedicated to helping teachers take care of themselves so they can continue to take care of their students. Explore the options available to help improve your symptoms of STS.

Finding the right balance between work and life is important to everyone. Empathy is a critical element to teaching but it can take a serious toll on your health. Be sure to take the steps you need to protect your mind and body and be the amazing teacher you are every day.

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