Resilient Wisconsin: Secondary Trauma

What is secondary trauma?

First responders feel stress, too. In fact, those with the job of helping others in crisis are more vulnerable to the effects of toxic stress, because they’re routinely exposed to distressing events and the heightened emotions of the people they serve. It’s called secondary trauma, and those who experience it are often too used to focusing on others to seek the help they need.

But it’s not just stress. Secondary trauma leaves those serving on the front lines more vulnerable to other negative health outcomes, like depression, sleep deprivation, harmful substance use, and thoughts of suicide—consequences they can’t leave behind when their shift is done. That’s why it’s important for first responders to recognize the signs of secondary trauma, in themselves and their colleagues, and find healthy ways to cope with and recover from stress.

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Coping during COVID-19

Serving your community is a rewarding but demanding job at the best of times. During periods of uncertainty like the COVID-19 pandemic, helping others in crisis can be particularly stressful—for you, your colleagues, and your loved ones. Learn how to recognize and manage the stress of serving during a pandemic.


Hear from responders and others


Take the next step

When the stress of helping others during a crisis builds up, it can express itself in many different ways. Get to know the symptoms of secondary trauma and burnout, a state of exhaustion that can affect police officers, firefighters, dispatchers, emergency healthcare providers, and anyone on the front lines. Once you’ve learned what to watch out for, make sure you know how to get help for yourself or a colleague in need.

Know the signs

Signs of burnout include:

  • Sadness, depression, or apathy.
  • Irritability, blaming others, and getting easily frustrated.
  • Indifference.
  • Self-isolation or detachment.
  • Poor hygiene and self-care.
  • Fatigue or exhaustion.
  • Hopelessness.
  • Powerlessness.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Feeling like a failure, personally or professionally.
  • Needing alcohol or other drugs to cope.

Signs of secondary trauma include:

  • The feeling that others’ traumatic experiences are your own.
  • Excessive fear or worry that something bad may happen.
  • Nightmares.
  • Feeling hyper aware or “on guard” at all times.
  • Recurring thoughts about traumatic incidents.
  • Elevated breathing, heartbeats, and blood pressure. 
  • Changes in your normal sleep or eating patterns.

Find support

Call 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
Speak to a trained crisis counselor affiliated with the National Disaster Distress Helpline.

Call 800-273-8255 or text HOPLEINE to 741741
Get free and confidential support and resources before a struggle becomes a crisis.


You’re not alone. Tools, information, and support are available for people living with and affected by secondary trauma, as well as the mental or behavioral health professionals, administrators, and community leaders who guide and serve them.

Get help

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For those living with secondary trauma, nothing is more important than learning how to strengthen your ability to manage stress, recover from trauma, and ask for and accept help. Start by exploring the resources below:


Offer support

Get training

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Secondary trauma prevention and treatment is an important tool for protecting every first responder’s physical wellness, mental health, and effectiveness on the job. Invest in education and training opportunities that can help you maintain continuity in your community services.

WATCH: Resilient Wisconsin First Responder Training

This is a free video training for EMS professionals, firefighters, and law enforcement officers. It provides information on how to recognize the symptoms and risks associated with toxic stress and tools for self-care and asking for help when needed to improve mental and physical health. To get an email with information on how to access this presentation, please tell us a little about yourself and your current awareness of the key concepts covered in the video training.

Last Revised: June 18, 2021