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What’s secondary trauma and why is coronavirus increasing the chances of getting it?

HOUSTON – Secondary trauma is what happens when people haven’t experienced the trauma themselves but are regularly exposed to traumatic stories.

Police, journalists and nurses are a few of the professions therapists said frequently experience secondary trauma as a result of being indirectly affected by other people’s traumatic events.

We often think of this happening during a natural disaster, like Hurricane Harvey.

However, Harris County Public Health Department said they expect coronavirus to leave an even bigger group (than Harvey did) suffering from secondary trauma.

“This is going to be a long response. It's nothing like a hurricane,” said Sean Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Jung Center in Houston. “It's nothing like where there's a crisis point and then things slope down back to a normal… this is an incredibly extended deployment for these folks.”

Ironically, some of the people warning us about this are the county’s epidemiologists who are also at risk of secondary trauma. Here they tell us how they’ve been coping after being deeply saddened by breaking the news to family that someone tested positive and they must isolate and cancel all of their plans.

“Sometimes we just have to step away for five minutes or so. I've been running the in afternoons so that's the way I handle the stress,” Hevert Rios-Benitez, epidemiologist with Harris County Public Health, said.

“I have a 17-month-old and I try to get home every day and give him his bath and sing his lullabies,” Elya Franciscus said. “Those little moments really help me get through the next day.”

“We’ve had emotional support animals and other things come in… I make sure to get my sleep,” Genevieve Sanders, epidemiologist, Harris County Public Health, said.

Some of the warning signs you may be experiencing this are:

  • Feeling numb or detached;
  • Feeling overwhelmed or maybe even hopeless;
  • Having low energy or feeling fatigued.
  • If you work in a profession at a higher risk for this, it can be a cause of burnout.

Doctors said to practice self-care: take breaks from coronavirus news and do not watch updates 24/7. Get good sleep and maintain a regular routine.