Stress andTrauma: Second-Hand Shock

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Stress andTrauma: Second-Hand Shock

Here is an excerpt from our book Second-Hand Shock: Surviving and Overcoming Vicarious Trauma. Co-author Vicki Carpel Miller, BSN, MS, LMFT and I hope you find it to be informative and helpful.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

We have all heard of Second-Hand smoke.  What image does that conjure up for you?  Let us put you in a room with a heavy smoker.  You are breathing in the smoky air.  As you inhale, it irritates your nose, your mouth, your lungs, your bloodstream; it smells and remains on your skin, your hair and your clothes.  After a while, you might start wheezing or coughing; your eyes may become irritated.  Then, it may become difficult to breathe.  Prolonged exposure creates a greater risk for adversely affecting your health and well- being, perhaps causing damage to your heart and your brain.  Inhaling smoke over time may cause you to develop asthma, emphysema, chronic pulmonary disorder, cancer and the like.   Let’s look at how the experience of absorbing trauma, second-hand, is equally as dangerous.

The experience of absorbing trauma, second-hand, is much the same as the second-hand smoke example.  The person who experiences the primary trauma (in our example, the smoker) may be adversely affected by a syndrome called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The primary trauma survivor is the one who was in the car accident, at the disaster, caught in the storm, fighting the war, being abused or abandoned by a parent, a spouse, or suffering the rape, the robbery or the attack.  They are having the event directly happen to them. The heroes and caregivers who are called upon to help, listen, observe, intervene, guide and care are exposed to that same trauma, second-hand and over time, are at risk for Second-Hand Shock Syndrome (SHSS).

We believe that Second-Hand Shock Syndrome is a spectrum disorder that encompasses a wide range of physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual effects from the indirect experience of trauma much like being in the presence of a smoker creates the experience of second-hand smoke. Over time, this can indirectly create disease in its recipient.  The effects of trauma are secondarily contagious, adversely affecting your body, mind and spirit.

An Epidemic?

We believe that there are many millions of people struggling with some form of Second- Hand Shock Syndrome; both professional and lay persons.  We are all exposed to trauma daily, many times a day. The news, radio talk shows, instant information via the Internet continue to feed us copious doses of trauma-content while we have little consciousness of the fact that we are even being traumatized; much less what the trauma content is doing to our health and well-being.

When we are first indirectly exposed to trauma, our brain begins to paint an empathic picture for us by the activation of mirror neurons in the visual cortex, We ‘see’ the event as if it were happening to us. A series of bio-physiological events then occurs which results in the spilling out of chemicals into our bloodstream and throughout our body. This chemical chain reaction ultimately concludes with the over-production of cortisol, which is attributed to the onset of many serious physical illnesses.

We believe many people are currently being treated for the symptoms of Second-Hand Shock Syndrome, which can be confused with other illnesses.  Many folks are receiving treatment for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression, who likely began their downhill descent with some form of Second-Hand Shock Syndrome. We think it needs to become a recognized diagnosis and we believe that if people began to acknowledge and control the chronic intrusion of trauma content in their lives; their physical health would improve. It would also save our ailing health-care system billions of dollars.

If you are a caring listener, please take care of yourself. Trauma-content stories can be hazardous to your health. Educate yourself about Second-Hand Shock. Please check out our website:

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Love and the Long Hot Summer

I live in the desert and have had to endure many long, hot summers; sweltering heat that you can literally see waving within your field of vision. Summer in the desert is not for the faint-hearted: heat so intense that when you open the door, it feels like you are walking into a blow torch. Your car becomes a kiln and you dry up like a prune.

Then, there is the monsoon. Suddenly, a tsunami of dust can envelop you with shearing winds. This is sometimes followed by torrential rains and subsequent flash flooding. If you can’t escape to a more temperate zone, one of the few remaining ways to cope with the intensity of a long hot summer in the desert is to see the meaning in it. So, here goes.

Sometimes our love-relationships are like the long, hot desert summer. Loving someone can be searing with burning passion. Conversely, it can include dry spells that leave us, as partners, quenching for replenishment.  Love can predictably kick up an incredible amount of old dust that overwhelms us and makes it hard to see and even harder to breathe. It can involve the collision of two volatile fronts that create a micro burst of exceptional energy. Loving someone can build-up a climate of thick, soupy emotional pressure that culminates with a torrid thunderstorm of upset, followed by a flood of cleansing tears and a calming, cooling-down.

Seasons of loving someone. Our love-relationships can, at times, be like the desert’s long, hot summer.

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Signs of Addiction Can Be Subtle Among Professional Helpers

An interesting article appeared online regarding the more subtle signs of addiction. The author, Ms. Melanie Haiken claims that knowing whether someone you love has a problem with drugs or alcohol is not always as obvious as you might think. People tend to stereotype the typical alcoholic as someone staggering around with a bottle in a paper bag. Many addicted people have fallen prey to “managed” habits and they are quite skilled in covering up their addictive behavior. She shares some of the secret signs of addiction which include numerous covert behaviors that help the addict to hide what they are doing.

I believe this to be particularly true for helping professionals who have gotten into addictive patterns as a way to distract themselves from the Second-Hand Shock they have developed over time. Self-medicating is a common, albeit counter-productive and potentially dangerous, method for quieting and numbing the overstimulated mind and body that results from absorbing trauma content. Alcohol, Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Valium and other benzodiazepines, Cocaine, Marijuana, and  other stimulants all rank high among drugs of choice for professional helpers.

Most people who work in a helping system are too close and too involved to clearly recognize the addictive process when they are in it.  If and when they become addicted, they become”sophisticated” addicts until they have a rock bottom experience that brings them to their knees.  Many of them come from addictive and/or dysfunctional families and are unwittingly replaying their unresolved historical pain.

Frequently, colleagues and peers enable the addicted professional by ignoring or minimizing the issue. They fear the loss of work and loss of professional respect. Spouses and families will tend to let it go on too long because they fear loss of their lifestyle and discovery by the community. They are enabling the helper, rather than acknowledging the price helper is paying for the precious work they do.

I believe that addiction is a more pervasive problem in the helping professional community than is documented or acknowledged.  In Vicki Carpel Miller’s and my study of Vicarious Trauma, we found a strong correlation between the neuroscience of Vicarious Trauma and the neuroscience of Addiction.  We found that many professionals are addicted to helping, itself.

Vicki and I want to raise awareness of this problem and encourage others to address it in the spirit of caring for our helpers who struggle with addiction and with their own psychological and spiritual well-being on a daily basis. Addiction is not really the problem, it is the “solution” for the struggling helper who can not tolerate the pain of Second-Hand Shock.