Secondary Trauma Treatment: 5 Self-Care Strategies

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Trauma Stewardship" by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you suffering from secondary trauma? How do you treat this form of emotional duress?

Recognizing secondary trauma as a real infliction is an important first step in coping with it. If you want to continue being a trauma steward, but don’t want to experience the stress of it, you need to follow these five strategies.

Here are successful strategies for secondary trauma treatment that you should try.

Practice Self-Care to Practice Trauma Stewardship

To be more reliable, accessible, and effective for the people, animals, or environment that you’re tending to, Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky says you must practice self-reflection and self-care for efficient secondary trauma treatment. Since secondary trauma results from you internalizing or “taking on” the pain of others, you must focus on healing yourself from within—by addressing your own needs, feelings, and intentions with mindfulness.

(Shortform note: While Lipsky argues for the importance of self-care for trauma workers specifically, Steven Covey argues that people of all professions should take care of themselves to maintain their capacity to do good work. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey says you must take care of your well-being in four ways: physically (by eating well, exercising, and sleeping enough); spiritually (by meditating or spending time in nature); mentally (by learning new information); as well as socially and emotionally (by seeking mutually-beneficial relationships and collaborating with others). He adds that maintaining your health allows you to improve your efficiency and grow not only in your work, but in your overall life.)

Lipsky provides five strategies for practicing self-care to be a better trauma steward:

Strategy #1: Make Time for Reflection

According to Lipsky, the first step in embracing a more mindful approach to trauma care is to regularly reflect on your needs, motivations, and emotions. You can do this by setting aside a small window of time in the morning for reflection. You can also practice meditation and breathing exercises.

Lipsky explains that understanding ourselves is key to processing the effects that secondary trauma has on us. Often, we get so caught up in our daily routines and work stresses that we lose connection to our personal needs and the reasons why we wanted to help others in the first place. This can cause us to feel like we have no control or options in our lives when we really do. 

When you practice reflection, ask yourself: “What is my reason for doing what I’m doing?” This question helps you realize that trauma doesn’t control you and that you have a choice in what to focus on when working with trauma. Lipsky recommends you discuss your reasons with people you trust or write them down as a reminder for the future. As you reflect on your reasons, consider whether continuing in your current work is good for your health. It’s possible that the work you do may no longer be in your best interest if it’s negatively impacting your well-being.

One reason many people engage in trauma work, Lipsky explains, is a desire for trauma mastery—a coping mechanism to recapture a sense of control that they didn’t have during a past traumatic experience. For example, you might work in the medical field if you had lost a loved one to illness when you were younger.

If trauma mastery is part of the reason you pursue your line of work, Lipsky advises that you seek support and healing for your original trauma so you don’t use your work as the main way to cope with your trauma. People with personal stakes tied to their work, she argues, might put an unhealthy amount of pressure on themselves. One way you can better understand how to manage your desire for trauma mastery while working with the trauma of others is by studying how others have dealt with their personal trauma while involved in trauma work.

Strategy #2: Focus on the Positives

When exposed to trauma, you might feel overwhelmed by how bad situations seem and how little control you have over them. However, Lipsky argues that you can restore your sense of agency by deliberately choosing to focus on the positives rather than negatives—on what you can do instead of what you can’t. This practice reminds you that you have a choice in every moment and allows you to reframe situations in healthier ways and take productive action. When you regularly choose to focus on positive things, it becomes easier to notice the positives. Lipsky cautions, though, that reframing situations to see their upsides doesn’t mean suppressing your negative emotions.

To take control of your focus, Lipsky offers a few suggestions:

Focus on your resources. When you feel overwhelmed or distressed, think about the sources of support and comfort you have in your life—the memories you’ve had, the people you know, or the places you’ve visited that you associate with peace and calm. For example, you might imagine your favorite reading nook or your pet. When you direct your awareness to your resources, you draw your attention away from what’s distressing you. This allows you to snap yourself out of your panic and calm your nervous system.

Make a Plan B. Create an alternative vision of your life, whether it involves a shift in your career, a move to a different location, or an entirely new lifestyle. When you consider alternative options, you recognize that you have a life outside of your work and that you always have the freedom to choose how you want to live it.

Strategy #3: Find a Supportive Community

According to Lipsky, a supportive community can help you rebuild your ability to be compassionate toward yourself and others. This community could be the members of your gardening club, your group of gaming friends, or your hiking partners—all that matters is that they support your growth and encourage you to be a better person.

A community helps you restore your compassion because its members validate your feelings and help you navigate your unhealthy habits. When others are nonjudgmental and supportive toward you, you begin to view your own feelings and struggles in the same light. This self-compassion, in turn, makes you more able to understand people you both agree and disagree with and treat them without judgment or malice. This compassionate approach, she argues, is necessary when working with people in pain or crisis.

Strategy #4: Create a Healthy Work-Life Balance

While laboring until complete exhaustion and dedicating every second of time to your cause might feel like the best way to make a difference, Lipsky argues that this is not the case. To properly care for others, she argues, you must take a healthier approach to your work—one in which you give yourself time and space to rest and renew.

Lipsky offers several tips for how to create a healthier work-life balance:

Encourage healthier work habits. Reflect on whether your work schedule is reasonable and consider how you can better care for the well-being of you and your coworkers. For example, make commitments with your coworkers to take breaks for lunch instead of eating in front of your computers.

Take your mind off work. Reflect on your daily routine and identify times when you can disengage from work and check in with your needs and feelings—for example, while you’re boiling a cup of tea. Additionally, build up your life outside of work by engaging in new hobbies, interacting with supportive people, and making a conscious effort not to check your devices. By taking time to recharge your physical and emotional batteries, you’ll be more effective when you’re at work.

Practice gratitude. Even during routine tasks like microwaving a meal, recognize opportunities to express your gratitude. Negative emotions like irritation and disappointment are natural when you’re exposed to suffering. While valid, harboring these emotions can harm your well-being and hinder your work. By practicing more gratitude, you can increase your resilience and make work feel more fulfilling rather than draining. 

Process your pain and emotions. To approach your work in a healthier way, acknowledge and find a way to process your negative emotions. Lipsky explains that people who do trauma work often absorb the pain and suffering of others. However, if you hold on to these feelings, your mental, emotional, and physical health will suffer. To process your emotions, Lipsky recommends you practice mindful activities—ones in which you’re focused on the present moment—such as meditation, physical exercise, creative hobbies, or going out into nature. When you practice mindful activities, you allow yourself space to think about, acknowledge, and release negative energy instead of letting them build up inside you.

Strategy #5: Create a Daily Practice

To engage in sustainable and fulfilling trauma work in the long term, make mindfulness a daily habit and regularly practice the four strategies for self-care. According to Lipsky, the more you connect with yourself, the more aware you become of your resources and autonomy, and the more motivation you have to do the work that you do.

To make mindful self-care a regular practice, Lipsky offers two suggestions:

Set a daily goal. At the start of each day, identify a small goal you want to accomplish, such as eating healthier snack options or practicing more conscious breathing. According to Lipsky, identifying a daily goal gives you a sense of control, reminding you that the stress or the situations you encounter at work don’t determine your day—you do. 

Set mindfulness reminders. Consider setting alarms on your phone, scheduling small parts of your day, or creating specific triggers to be mindful (like every time you enter a new location). Lipsky explains that being present in our daily activities can be difficult to achieve—urgent deadlines might make us irritated at a slower team member or you might be distracted by an upcoming social outing with friends. By setting reminders, you can be mindful more regularly, which allows you to think and approach your work with intentionality and control.

Secondary Trauma Treatment: 5 Self-Care Strategies

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Laura van Dernoot Lipsky's "Trauma Stewardship" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Trauma Stewardship summary:

  • That the best way to care for others is to care for yourself
  • How trauma damages the caregivers who are exposed to others' trauma
  • How caregivers can manage secondary trauma to better support others

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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