Types of Trauma

Taken from Work-Related Stress and Trauma: Supporting the Mental Health of Health Professionals, American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges

A disorder in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions. Symptoms may include nightmares or unwanted memories of the trauma, avoidance of situations that bring back memories of the trauma, heightened reactions, anxiety, or depression. Treatment includes different types of trauma-focused psychotherapy and potentially medications to manage symptoms.

Secondary trauma is the development of PTSD-like symptoms without directly witnessing or being involved in a traumatic event. In healthcare, the traumatizing event of a patient or client can become a traumatizing event for the healthcare professional. Unlike vicarious trauma, which accumulates over time, secondary trauma can occur unexpectedly and suddenly.

Compassion fatigue is a type of indirect trauma specific to healthcare professionals, caused by the emotional toll of working with those who have experienced trauma. In an attempt to compartmentalize and/or create distance from the emotional experiences of patients/clients, it may also cause emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of empathy towards patients or clients.

Burnout is cause by excessive and prolonged stress and can result in emotional and psychological exhaustion related to an individual or group’s work environment. It is not a form of trauma and can be potentially addressed by shifting to a new work environment or adjusting their workload and/or schedule.

Traumatic countertransference is when a healthcare professional relates to a patient or client in such a way that they unconsciously connect the patient or client with an existing relationship in their own life. This can occur in many situations (not just in a medical setting) where there is a connection developed between people based on empathy. This can be harmful in several ways because, as a healthcare professional, the relationship should always be compassionately professional along with the appropriate and necessary boundaries, and not a relationship dynamic influenced on the premise that the client reminds the healthcare professional, for example, of their mother or child.

Getting Help

Trauma is an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.

  • 70% of U.S. adults have experienced at least one traumatic event
  • 46% of U.S. children have experienced at least one event by age 18 & more than 20% have experienced at least two
  • Disproportionate impacts on communities can be caused by historical, racial, and systemic trauma, social disadvantages & cascading disasters

Toolkit: Trauma-Informed Workplaces

  • Feeling on edge or overwhelmed
  • Chronic trouble focusing, concentrating, or paying attention
  • Snappy, reactive, or irritable reactions – high sensitivity to sensory stimuli (E.G., becoming irritable or stressed at the sound of someone chewing gum or tapping a pen on the table)
  • Chronic illness or fatigue
  • Mental health and substance use challenges. In Canada (with similar rates likely in the U.S.), “mental illness” is the fastest-growing disability claim type. In 2021, 40% of working-age adults in the U.S. reported mental health or substance use challenges.
  • Increased apathy, cynicism, pessimism, resentment, and other barriers to feeling connected to the work
  • Decreased compassion and/or empathy
  • Limited self-efficacy (E.G., reduced confidence in capability, feeling like nothing you can do will help/make a difference, feeling like a failure, or doubting your ability to do your job well)
  • Challenges with setting/maintaining healthy boundaries
  • Altered views of oneself, others, or the broader world
  • Sleep dysfunction
  • Loss of ability to trust others/the organization/systems, in general
  • Lack of sense of fulfillment/meaning
  • Diminished creativity
  • Increased defensiveness/feeling targeted when receiving feedback/challenges with taking accountability for actions
  • Avoidance and/or procrastination
  • Social withdrawal

7 Tools for Managing Traumatic Stress

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other forms of traumatic stress can make life incredibly difficult and unpredictable. Intrusive thoughts and flashbacks can just show up without a moment’s notice, affecting your ability to function.
Staying away from the people, places and situations that trigger these thoughts and memories can be appropriate and helpful at times.

However, using avoidance as your only strategy can cause more problems than it attempts to solve. These symptoms can’t be avoided all the time, and trying to may cause you to close yourself off to opportunities, create anxiety or feel even more restrained by your traumatic experience.

NOTE: The information contained in these self-help documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional care. Neither the authors nor the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association (GVMA) assume liability for injury incurred by following the information presented in these self-help resources.