I’ve been working on a couple of research projects recently that both, coincidentally, involve the idea of trauma or secondary trauma because of the workplace. I think about trauma from the perspective of someone who has worked in the field of life events – what is it that makes something traumatic? In one sense it’s easy, think of the worst thing that can happen to you and that’s trauma, but in another way it’s actually quite difficult to pin down what specifically is it that makes something tip over from “that was really bad” to “that was traumatic”. It’s something we thought a lot about when investigating life events – what is it specifically that makes something be experienced as negative?
For me, trauma is at one end of the spectrum of negative life events and is yet to be completely defined. The official definition of trauma is threat to life or threat of serious harm. However, this can’t be the whole story as people are often traumatised by things that don’t fit neatly in to this – people whose relationships fall apart for instance can feel traumatised without ever feeling like their life was in danger. Secondary trauma is indirect exposure to trauma through listening to or witnessing traumatic events – so first responders are at increased risk for this because they have to attend to a lot of things that would be considered traumatic like accidents or fires.
Both types of trauma – direct and indirect – lead to emotional numbness, avoiding things that trigger thoughts about the event, intrusive thoughts and feeling on edge. I think people who experience trauma at work often don’t realise that they are suffering from these sorts of symptoms because they slowly sneak up on you and the sorts of experiences you are having are normalised – everyone has the same stories of seeing or hearing about something awful – so you can end up traumatised and desensitised without even realising that how you’re feeling isn’t normal.
Post-traumatic growth is a theory that explains how people who experience trauma can actually end up growing from it (it should be noted that not everyone does). They develop new ways of understanding themselves and the world, gaining a new appreciation of life and seeing new possibilities. It’s different from being resilient, which is the ability to bounce back, post-traumatic growth involves struggling rather than ‘bouncing back’ and developing a new outlook as a way of coping and integrating their trauma.
Although no one would choose to experience trauma, it’s nice to know that there are ways it can be used to grow and develop. This is especially true for people who have to endure trauma as part of their job. Jobs which often involve helping others. I hope that the research we do can play some small part in turning that trauma into something more positive.