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NEA News

How to Prevent Secondary Trauma

COVID-19. Poverty. Isolation. Systemic racism. Educators feel the stress of their students' lives now more than ever.
A stressed out teen sits in a school hallway
Published: September 23, 2020

Key Takeaways

  1. Secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, is common in educators.
  2. Symptoms may include feelings of isolation, anxiety, physical ailments, and sleep disturbances
  3. Learn about proactive practices to support yourself as you work to help students and families in these difficult times.

COVID-19. School closings. The murder of George Floyd. Systemic racism.

Students and educators have had quite a lot to manage over the past six months. And, for some, the stress caused by systemic racism has been with them for a lifetime. This all adds up to trauma.

In one Merriam-Webster listing, trauma is defined as “an emotional upset.” I think we can agree that everything going on right now has caused significant emotional upset for students, parents, and educators of all ages and backgrounds. As a result, students and educators will be bringing tremendously complex feelings and the effects of their trauma into classrooms.

When people are exposed to toxic or chronic stress, they can be in “flight, fight, or freeze” mode more often than usual, which makes learning difficult. Students who are impacted by trauma need safe and supportive learning environments, positive adult relationships, and the space to learn how to regulate their difficult emotions.

Guess who provides this to students? That’s right, it’s the educators and other school staff who work with them day in and day out. Many adults are committed to being that support and helping students build resilience, but they, too, are at risk for what is known as secondary trauma.

Secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, is common in first responders, educators, and other school-based staff that support students and families. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines it as “a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized.”

HHS further states that the “symptoms of compassion fatigue may include feelings of isolation, anxiety, dissociation, physical ailments, and sleep disturbances. Additionally, compassion fatigue is associated with a sense of confusion, helplessness, and a greater sense of isolation from supporters than is seen with burnout.”

Raise your hand if you have ever felt this way.

Strategies for Staying Mentally Healthy

The good news is that this stress is treatable. Try these proactive practices to support yourself as you work to help students and families in these difficult times.

Make self-care a non-negotiable priority. Over the past five years, educator self-care has gone mainstream and is now widely accepted as essential for educators to succeed and avoid burnout.

Schedule time for yourself. Take time out for whatever helps you stay regulated, so you can be the very best version of yourself. This can be meditation or mindfulness exercises. It can be time to enjoy physical activity in a way that makes sense for you. Or try journaling, engaging in art activities, or listening to your favorite music several times a week, or daily, if you can.

My time away is a morning cup of coffee alone, in silence, which allows me to gather my thoughts and energy for the day. In the warmer months, I drink coffee on my porch, where I can see nature and hear birds chirping.

When it’s cold outside, I sit in a room away from my TV, phone, social media, and email. I can set my intention for the day and then move on to exercise.

When I get home, I love to have a cup of coffee and watch TV for an hour. This helps me gear up for the evening routine with my teens and any work I need to do. I check in with the kids, and, if no one needs anything urgently, I tell them I am off limits for an hour while I take care of me.

Stay connected to others. When circumstances are difficult, it is critical to stay connected to family and friends in your life, especially if you live alone. Schedule a phone conversation, video chat, or marathon texting session with a loved one or favorite friend at least once a week. Make sure you connect at a time when your tank is full, so it’s a positive experience. Weekends work best for me, since I use most of my energy during the week for my family and students.

Wendy Turner
Wendy Turner

Reframe negative thoughts. We tend to have a negativity bias when it comes to our daily thoughts, holding on to negative ideas more easily than the positive ones.

Just think about it: On a busy day, when 9 out of 10 things go well, we dwell on the one thing that did not work out the way we wanted it to. Reframing is a practice where you can take a negative thought and see it in a different light, finding an opportunity or positive idea in it. At times it can help us get to a positive place or at least to a neutral position on something.

An example might be: “Online learning is so hard. I hate it compared with regular school.” While this is true, this thought can be reframed as: “I can get better at technology when I learn how to create online learning experiences for my students”; “I have more time for self-care when I work from home and don’t have a commute”; or, “I get to work in comfy sweats today.”

Practice reframing, and it will become automatic for you. This has really changed my thinking in a positive way in both my personal and professional life.

Show yourself grace and compassion. After a difficult day, have a good old-fashioned cry if you need to, or scream into a pillow. This can be cathartic and a great way to reset for the next day. Forgive yourself for anything that didn’t go well, and move on. It’s a bonus if you can identify one good aspect of your day upon reflection. Educators regularly teach our students coping strategies for handling difficult emotions. Now it’s time we embrace them ourselves.

Ask for help. When situations at school become difficult to bear, reach out for help. Tell a trusted administrator or colleague that you need a break or support. There are so many caring individuals in schools who will support you. You just have to ask. When physical and emotional symptoms begin to interfere with your ability to do your job and maintain positive relationships with friends and family, seek professional support from a licensed therapist or medical doctor.

‘We Are Not Alone’

Secondary trauma and compassion fatigue are real, especially right now. But so are the strategies and supports we can access to counter and even prevent their negative effects. Most important, we need to remember that we are not alone. Proactive self-care and reaching out for help are key for managing this stress. Commit to taking these steps today.

Wendy Turner teaches second grade at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Del., and was the 2017 Delaware Teacher of the Year. Named a Compassion Champion by the Delaware governor’s office, Turner also served as an NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow. In addition, Turner received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and is a three-time Empatico Empathy Project Fellow. Find her on twitter @mrswendymturner.

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