With the ringing of a siren, the call of code, or a particular sight or smell, your heart races, palms sweat, breathing increases. Your mind transports you back in time.
Incidents like last week’s mass shooting in Orlando, or prior events in Sandy Hook, Colorado, or Boston, bring a very real awareness of tragedy and trauma to the whole nation.
Paramedics, police, doctors, nurses and other first responders/healthcare providers know this trauma. They see it every day of the year. Perhaps it even becomes so familiar that the lasting effects of witnessing trauma each day are not recognized.
But a particular event or patient can bring back memories and feelings. In a recent article, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, a surgeon at Boston Medical Center, stated that the violence in Orlando “just brought back all of the feelings that I was going through”. Healthcare providers and first responders do not need to be directly involved with high profile tragedies like Orlando to experience secondary traumatic stress. The work of providing care to ill and injured patients each and every day can result in these reactions. And a new event – whether in the news or in your own practice - may trigger a wash of emotion, or spur upsetting thoughts and memories of past experiences.
Regardless of the trigger, Massachusetts Resiliency Center Executive Director Kermit Crawford states “active coping is really important …to change the pain and suffering to new experience, and to a benefit and blessing for others, is truly empowering.” Dr. Kalish reaches out to those caring for the victims in Orlando, reminding them to seek out professional help if needed:
“The part we don’t want to lose sight of… is that everyone affected by the trauma — including police, paramedics, and hospital staff — “they need to seek help for themselves. If they spiral badly in the beginning, it may not be recoverable.”
Secondary traumatic stress reactions are common for first responders and health care providers. Self-care, and support from colleagues, make a difference for many. However when secondary traumatic stress begins to interfere with a person’s ability to function at work and home, it may be time to seek additional support. What are the signs of secondary traumatic stress? They can range from physical reactions (fatigue, headaches, stomachaches), emotional reactions (feeling overwhelmed, irritability, mood swings), behavioral reactions (restlessness, changes in alcohol/drug consumption, isolation), or cognitive reactions (decreased concentration, impaired memory, distressing dreams).
If you’re having difficulty coping and experiencing secondary traumatic stress symptoms, look into the resources available at your place of employment or check out a few of the following resources:
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers online resources for physician health and wellness
The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies has a webpage addressing indirect trauma
The Texas Medical Association's Committee on Physician Health and Rehabilitation offers online and home study courses relevant to self-care