Identifying the impact of trauma in the wake of tragedy

Witnessing a traumatic event such as a car accident or an act of violence can lead to emotional duress and other health consequences including mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

Experts working in this field refer to this as secondary trauma, meaning that even if you were not physically hurt in the event in question, you can still be affected psychologically by what you have seen or heard.

Exposure to traumatic events and other emotionally disturbing information through the media or by hearing about the firsthand trauma experiences of another can also have the same impact.

What is secondary trauma?

Secondary trauma is the debilitating emotional and psychological impact of connecting with the traumatic and disturbing life events of other people. Specialists describe it as an insidious form of stress that can accumulate over time, which also has the capacity to alter one’s view of the world and the people around them. They suggest it can affect a person’s cognitive functioning and values as well, and be as debilitating as experiencing the trauma in person.

Symptoms of secondary trauma mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and affected individuals may find themselves re-experiencing the trauma. They can include:

  • feeling emotionally numb or upset
  • increased irritability or anxiety
  • nausea or headaches
  • social withdrawal
  • suffering nightmares and difficulty sleeping
  • feelings of despair and hopelessness
  • a more negative view of the world
  • increased illness and fatigue
  • increased sense of danger
  • reduced motivation
  • difficulties making decisions or concentrating
  • reduced productivity
  • avoiding certain things
  • confusion
  • increased alcohol, drug or medication use to help cope.

Such reactions are normal and can continue for days, weeks or sometimes months.

Some people are also especially vulnerable to secondary trauma, including those who have recently experienced a loss or a significant life change, and those who have experienced wars or other major crises.

Traumatic events can trigger memories of previous losses or events as well. They can bring back feelings of anger, grief and sadness. It is important to note that if you are experiencing resurfacing emotions from past events because of a recent trauma you have witnessed, that reaction is normal.

How should we treat this form of trauma?

Identifying the warning signs, reducing the risks where possible, and managing the potential health impacts are vital for one’s health. According to those specialising in this treatment area, strategies that may be useful include:

  • arranging to speak with a counsellor;
  • using regular physical activity and recreation to help dissipate stress levels;
  • make time for people and activities that bring joy to your life
  • avoiding the use of alcohol and drugs as a way of coping;
  • spending time with people you love who you feel comfortable talking to about the recent events and past losses or experiences that might have resurfaced and are affecting you now;
  • expecting that your mood and feelings may constantly change and that you might be more sensitive or emotional to things than normal; and,
  • acknowledging that you’ve been traumatised by an event or experience and that body and emotions are going to take time to deal with it, so it might take a while for you feel like yourself again.

Getting help

Speak to your GP or contact one of the below services

Victim Support Agency
Phone 1800 819 817

Road Trauma Support Service
Phone 1300 367 797

Phone 1300 224 636

Centre for Post-Traumatic Mental Health
Phone (03) 9035 5599

Australian Psychological Society Referral Service
Phone 1800 333 497

Phone 13 11 14

Parent Line
Phone 1300 1300 52

Kids Helpline
Phone 1800 55 1800

Trauma from car accident

RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Road accident injuries

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Canda Glanville

Maurice Blackburn Frankston

Canda Glanville is the Principal Lawyer who heads Maurice Blackburn's Frankston office and specialises in assisting people who have been injured as a result of a road accident.

Prior to joining Maurice Blackburn in 2003, Canda worked in the areas of criminal law and family law with Victoria Legal Aid.

Canda is a Law Institute of Victoria Accredited Personal …

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