There’s little doubt that, while being in the teaching and helping professions is rewarding, it can be stressful work. This stress can be compounded by risk for experiencing secondary traumatic stress for teachers who work with highly traumatized populations. Secondary traumatic stress, or STS, is the experience of lasting emotional distress from hearing about other’s trauma stories first hand and working with traumatized children or adults. STS is more than just feeling burnt out; it manifests in signs and symptoms similar to the posttraumatic stress experienced by the children whose stories you’ve heard. Teachers and helpers with their own personal trauma history can be especially vulnerable.

Some signs and symptoms of secondary traumatic stress include:

  • Feeling fewer positive emotions or empathy towards students, or even feeling numb
  • Feeling increased anxiety or concerns about the safety of yourself you’re your students
  • Feeling fatigued or having low energy
  • Thinking about or having imagery of a child’s trauma story over and over
  • Feeling powerless
  • Lowered work performance and low morale
  • Problems concentrating or having difficulty making decisions
  • Questioning your life and/or job satisfaction
  • Less interest in things you previously enjoyed
  • Withdrawing from coworkers, friends, or family
  • Difficulty sleeping or having distressing dreams related to a child’s trauma story

The potential of developing STS is real. Fortunately there are ways that you, as teachers and helpers, can lower your risks.

Practice Self-Reflection. It can be hard to admit when we are feeling burnt out or emotionally impacted by the work we do. And sometimes we are so busy that we don’t take the time to notice how we are feeling. An important part of preventing secondary trauma is knowing the signs and paying attention to our mind and body. Take a minute or so to “check in” with yourself each day. Notice any changes in your emotional wellbeing and ask yourself if it may be related to the work you are doing. Know and understand that secondary trauma reactions are not a sign of weakness. Instead, being aware of them is a sign of emotional maturity and strength.

Consult and talk with trusted others for support. As a trauma therapist myself, one of the most important things that I’ve learned is how helpful it is to consult with other professionals about your experiences. Sometimes, the purpose of consulting isn’t for specific or concrete advice. Sometimes consulting is just sharing and processing your experience with someone you trust who can understand, show support, and offer their perspective. Additionally, seeking professional support from a therapist or counselor who specializes in trauma can be very helpful and healing. Consider this if you notice yourself experiencing any of the symptoms above.

Know and Stick to your Work Boundaries. If you are a teaching and helping professional, you probably got into this work because you love children and love helping them learn and grow. Often times, those of us that are passionate about our work find ourselves “going the extra mile” to help a child. However, if you are constantly doing this, all of those miles add up and you end up exhausted (and sometimes bitter). That feeling of exhaustion can make us vulnerable to symptoms of burn out and secondary traumatic stress. Sticking to your boundaries also means working within your area of expertise and finding supportive others for things you may not be qualified to do. It can be tempting to want to do everything we can to help a child in need, but working outside of your professional boundaries leads to anxiety, second guessing, and potential ethical errors. So, if you aren’t sure how to handle something, consult with others, seek support, and find experts to bring into the child’s support networks, such as a school counselor, to help with the pieces that are outside of your professional role.

Practice Self Care. I cannot stress enough the importance of self-care. Self-care can mean so many things and there are multiple areas of self-care, such as physical, emotional, spiritual, recreational, and educational. Most people find that a having balance of different areas works best. For example:

  • Physical – getting enough sleep, taking prescribed medications, regular exercise, eating nutritional food
  • Emotional – talking to a trusted friend or family member, journaling, talking with a therapist
  • Spiritual – praying, going to your place of worship, meditating
  • Recreational – Watching a favorite show, reading, arts and crafts, playing a game with friends, gardening
  • Educational – Watching a documentary on an interesting subject, professional training in an area you are passionate about

If you are noticing any of the signs or symptoms of STS, don’t ignore them. Seek support. The healthier you are as a teacher and helper, the better you will be for your students. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Vanessa Jacoby, Ph.D.

Vanessa Jacoby, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a child specialization in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She is member of theSTRONG STARMultidisciplinary Research Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, whose mission is to alleviate and prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment related problems in active duty service members and their families. In her work at STRONG STAR, Dr. Jacoby conducts prevention and supportive programs with military families with young children experiencing deployment.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.