What Is Secondary PTSD?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2019
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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that can arise after a person has been through a traumatic experience. Symptoms include emotional detachment from normal life and an abnormal sense of fear or alertness. Often, those in familiar contact with people suffering from PTSD become stressed from the actions or the knowledge of the person's trauma. Sometimes, if the family, friends or health-care workers involved with this person become seriously emotionally altered by the situation, they too can suffer from PTSD symptoms, in a related condition known as secondary PTSD.

Normally, PTSD or secondary PTSD diagnoses require the person to display serious psychological symptoms. These symptoms are usually severe enough to affect the person's normal way of living and interacting with others. Secondary PTSD, however, is not as well recognized as PTSD, and the diagnosis may also go by other names. Examples of these include secondary trauma, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.


Those who may experience secondary PTSD are those people who suffer emotionally through exposure to a traumatized person. Families and friends of some military veterans are one such group, as they have to deal both with the trauma their loved one went through, and the resultant stress of living with the person and trying to help. People who come into contact with PTSD sufferers through their work can also develop secondary trauma as a result. These include nurses, doctors and psychiatric personnel, who help the traumatized people after the event, and who may, over time, be exposed to many different people with PTSD.

Shared characteristics between secondary PTSD and PTSD include increased alertness and jumpiness, along with nightmares and an increased tendency to avoid social situations. Like people who suffer from PTSD, those with secondary PTSD may feel less attached to their loved ones, and experience a reduced sense of purpose. As people with secondary PTSD have perhaps had their view of life and the ability of other people to inflict pain changed for the worse, they may also become judgmental and disillusioned, and experience anger at the world and the people in it.

Psychiatric diagnoses need specific symptoms and conditions to be present for the correct diagnosis and therefore the correct treatment. Although the use of the term "secondary PTSD" may be in common use for people who are suffering from psychological problems due to the trauma of a loved one or client, it may not always be an accurate diagnosis. Often, similar diagnoses such as "caretaker stress" display some of the same symptoms but requires different modes of treatment.


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