Recognize Secondary Traumatic Stress

Society asks a lot of public library workers. Alongside our tasks of finding and providing books and other materials, leading programming for all ages, and answering all manner of questions, we find ourselves serving as trusted individuals for those who desperately need support or just another human to talk to. People come to us with their problems regularly, bringing their stories of heartbreak, violence, neglect, poverty, depression. I have found myself serving these patrons, putting on a brave face for the rest of the day, and going home weary and crying. Based on stories from my coworkers, this is a relatively frequent occurrence for library staff members.

As a staff trainer for my library district, I am lucky enough to go to a number of workshops myself in order to integrate concepts and potentially decide whether or not to invite workshop leaders to present to staff in my area. This week, I was invited to a nearby library’s staff training on Trauma Informed Care. In this class—which I highly encourage you to seek out—we learned how to define trauma and how it influences behaviors as well as ways we can be mindful of potential previous trauma when working with others. It was there, in a brief mention at the end of class, that I heard the phrase for what might be happening in the scenario described above:  secondary traumatic stress (STS).

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), secondary traumatic stress is “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.”  It has also interchangeably been referred to as compassion fatigue, defined by C. R Figley as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.” Sound familiar? The condition is common in occupations like doctors, educators, therapists, and veterinarians. Like libraries, these fields are filled by people who want to help others and are commonly sought out after traumatic experiences. The risk is higher for those who feel great levels of empathy for those they want to help. Symptoms are similar to those of burnout, but are caused by indirect trauma exposure rather than general occupational stress.

NCTSN lists the following symptoms associated with secondary traumatic stress:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Hopelessness
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Avoidance
  • Anger and cynicism
  • Sleeplessness
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Minimizing
  • Guilt

In “Enough Already: Compassion Fatigue,” librarian Patricia Katopol points out that librarians are known for tirelessly working on a difficult question until they find the answer for their patron. While an admirable trait, this can contribute to tendencies to dwell on troubling problems rather than taking precautions to distance themselves emotionally from the stress after the immediate need is met.

Does this mean we should stop using empathy to meet our patrons’ needs? Definitely not. It does mean that we need to recognize these symptoms in ourselves and our coworkers and take steps to healing and self-awareness. Without doing so, the symptomatic apathy, exhaustion, and hopelessness will without a doubt affect our ability to do our jobs.

The fastest way to determine if you are experiencing secondary traumatic stress is to take an informal self-assessment. The Professional Quality of Life Measure (ProQOL) or Ireland’s Drug and Alcohol Task Force Compassion Fatigue Self-Test might be good places to start. Also take a look at the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments’ packet on STS and self-care, found here.

Awareness is the first hurdle to overcoming secondary traumatic stress. Those who experience it should also make time for physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and workplace self-care. If needed, don’t be afraid to make use of a therapist or Employee Assistance Program—these conditions are entirely valid and worthy of concern and attention. Find a safe place to vent and talk to others who are familiar with what you are going through. Katopol suggests journaling or asking for more support and time to relax at home. If possible, reach out to a manager and see if there’s a way to arrange tasks that allow you a break from STS-related situations for a while. For more resources, visit the NCTSN’s website.

Have you experienced secondary traumatic stress? Share your challenges or ways you’ve overcome it in the comments.


Kerri is a MSI LIS candidate at Drexel University. She spends most of her day thinking about the ways we learn and process information from others in her role as a learning and development specialist for a public library district. Thankfully, her current stress comes mostly from waiting for feedback on a project and preparing for an upcoming weekend as a camp counselor. She occasionally tweets at @klmillik.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

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