Everyone’s relationship to trauma is different. In episode 285, I received a question from an individual wondering whether their experience of trauma is valid given the event did not happen directly to them, while also struggling with feelings of guilt. In this post, I talk about the criteria surrounding trauma and dive into the strategies and coping mechanisms available to help you process and move forward.
Several years ago when we were still together, my ex-boyfriend was sexually assaulted by his sister. We were both in our mid-twenties at the time. In the years since then, I have been wracked with guilt, thinking maybe I could have prevented it had I been there. I have frequent flashbacks to the day of the assault and his telling me about it to the point that I feel sick, depressed, and suicidal. My question is, is secondhand trauma a thing and if so, how do I cope with it?
Thanks for all the wonderful work you do.
Thank you for the question. This is heavy stuff. I want start by addressing your question of whether secondhand trauma is a thing. Yes. It is. Even if we look at the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder in the DSM-5, criterion A is “Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways:
- Directly experiencing the traumatic event
- Witnessing, in person, the event as it occurred to others
- Learning that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend.
- Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic events (e.g. first responders collecting human remains, police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse.)”
Whether or not you are talking about full-blown PTSD here, looking at these criteria helps us understand that you can absolutely experience trauma from learning that something terrible happened to someone that you care about. Interestingly, it doesn’t actually matter whether they themselves were traumatized by the event. Everyone’s relationship to trauma is different. So yes, you may have legitimate traumatic symptoms as a result of this. It’s hard in a different way because you have no direct experience with the event to work through. You can also have a second layer of feelings and judgments about your own experiences. Like who am I to have such a hard time with this when it wasn’t me that was assaulted?
What can you do to cope?
I think the first step is working toward adjusting some of the negative automatic thoughts that are probably coming up in relation to what I just said. You aren’t dumb or selfish or any other negative thing for having this struggle. When you catch yourself coming up with these quick automatic judgments, try to catch yourself. Write them down or say them out loud and see if there is a more compassionate response that you can think of. It’s not about trying to fight away these thoughts because that’s not really how we work. It’s about adding in the self-compassion to try to balance it out a bit.
There is a lot of processing to be done here. One of the things that really maintains trauma is avoidance. Avoidance of the events that traumatized you in the first place and avoidance of the internal sensations that come along with remembering. There are a variety of ways that you can start to reduce this avoidance. This will probably be very unsurprising, but I would definitely suggest therapy here. There are many different therapeutic approaches that could be helpful here. What you would want to do is find a therapist that specializes in trauma work. You can do this using search tools such as Psychology today. Head over to my website at duffthepsych.com/findatherapist for more info about how to use that tool.
There are structured approaches that you can go through where you won’t just be tearing yourself open and jumping headfirst into the trauma in a way that would not be helpful to you. They will systematically build up your coping and help you to change the way that these memories impact you. I also encourage you to do a lot of self-reflection. Pulling out your journal and starting to write about your feelings is a great starting place. You can also find a lot of good books and workbooks on trauma online. Working through one of those on your own is another great approach. Pull in more information in general. Learn more about trauma, learn more about anxiety and how it works, learn more about mental health coping skills such as breathing strategies, grounding skills, etc. Start consuming books, videos, podcasts, documentaries. Anything. The more you learn, the better off you will be. Sometimes it also takes a certain type of approach or way of saying things to really ring true to you, even if it’s information that you have encountered before.
One thing I want to point out is how long it’s been since the event. This is really sticking with you. It’s causing you to feel significant personal discomfort including suicidality. That is serious enough to pay attention to and it’s been long enough that we can be fairly sure that it’s not going to just spontaneously resolve. You aren’t just being dramatic. You are having significant mental health challenges as a result of what happened and how your body reacted to it. Get some help. Don’t let this plague you forever. I don’t think that is what he would want for you either.
You can listen to this on Episode 285 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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