Our Nervous System Never Experiences Secondary Trauma: It is always Primary
How to reduce the personal cost of our work helping those suffering from collective trauma.
Our nervous systems cannot understand our minds’ belief that we are experiencing “secondary” trauma. We tell ourselves it is secondary because the people we are working with have experienced a trauma that is direct to them, and because we are working with them it then indirectly affects us. But the nervous system doesn’t care about our rationalizing.
When we have heard enough stories from the refugees we work with who have fled their troubled countries and survived a harrowing journey, when we have seen the devastation to the people and heard the stories of those who have been traumatized by armed violence, when we have spent enough time researching and reading and listening to others about the ongoing traumas of genocide, slavery, and racism they experience, our nervous system and body don’t just feel traumatized. They are traumatized.
And trauma that gets stuck in the body cannot be freed by our minds. Whatever group of people we work with who are suffering from a collective trauma, the work can leave us feeling chronically stressed, on edge, burnt out, or emotionally collapsed, numb, and depressed, which are often signs of trauma. The body does not lie. This is the nervous system’s way of telling us we are overwhelmed, and we had better take care of ourselves or there will be serious repercussions for us.
We have to face, in other words, that working with traumatized populations can be traumatizing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing this work. On the contrary, it is vital for people with the required skills to help those suffering from a recent traumatic experience or from an ongoing, perhaps generations-long, traumatizing life in an oppressive system. The care and help we offer can help them stabilize and heal much more quickly.
The reason it is important to understand the direct experience of trauma to our nervous system is that it changes how we care for ourselves. This is what separates our experience from those who we work with. We can, if we understand the why and how, respond to our trauma and attend to it immediately.
Most of us doing this work have learned how to do self-care to minimize secondary trauma, sometimes called vicarious trauma. We should eat well, exercise regularly, do some sort of mindfulness meditation or focused breathing practice, have a good work/life balance, avoid too much alcohol or recreational drugs, and hang around good friends and have an active social life.
That’s all very important, but it misses the one critical element that builds the resilience we need in order to better navigate the oceans of collective trauma. That element is ongoing, intimate personal interactions with others who can bear witness to our factual and emotional experiences. Trauma that we experience as a collective trauma must be met with a collective response, which means self-care is just not enough.
I think of self-care as maintaining a good life-jacket to help us stay afloat in these deep, dark waters of collective trauma. But sharing with other people who are doing the same work as we are, with a shared focus and intention, can be like being in a lifeboat on those tumultuous seas–no longer alone or at the mercy of the currents. In a lifeboat, you collectively do what is needed to survive while building resilience for the ongoing journey.
Having a regular time to check in with others in the boat becomes essential. “Checking in” means that with these other people, be it one other or thirty others, we say what is hurting us, haunting us, enraging us, or breaking our hearts, so we can let those waves of emotion come up and move through us.
We are the witnesses to the people we work with who are suffering from overwhelming trauma, and we need to let ourselves and others know how deeply it affects us. We are human. Our traumatized systems need to be heard and witnessed so our bodies can do what it is they have evolved to do–process the trauma and let it move through us.
in a safe enough environment, with people who can hold the space for us (as we will do for them), the body will process whatever is getting caught in the emotional constrictions of our work. Then we can go back to work, help those who so desperately need it, and keep ourselves as healthy as possible so we can keep helping others, not just today and tomorrow, but as long as needed.