Secondary Traumatic Stress Could Be Impacting More People Than We Know

Just a few weeks ago at the War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas there were loud noises that led to a panic at a high school football game. The immediate assumption was that the noise was gunfire. Thousands of scared fans flooded the stadium exits. It turned out that the noises were due to a fight, falling barricades and the firing of a stun gun which prompted the crowd of more than 38,000 fans to run.

Due to the continuity of mass shootings, people are on high alert. Our sense of security has been threatened and people are much quicker to assume that something dangerous is happening. There are numerous examples of the flight or fight stress response kicking in as a result of a loud noise in public places.

After so much graphic coverage on social media and the news following each real shooting event, it’s easy to understand why people are feeling anxious, fearful and generally more on edge.

This is called “secondary traumatic stress” and it’s a growing issue that we need to pay close attention to.

Jorina Elbers, MD is the program director for the Trauma Relief Project at the HeatMath Institute. She explains what secondary traumatic stress is and what signs we should look for.

“Secondary traumatic stress can occur when events undermine our sense of safety and security, and activate the body’s stress response over and over again.

“By definition, it does not require direct exposure to the event, just the perceived threat that it could happen again, at any time. Similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, although not as intense, secondary traumatic stress takes a toll on our emotional and physical health. In my clinic I have observed how chronic stress and trauma lead not only to mental health issues, but also to physical health issues. Chronic pain, dizziness, and digestive problems can occur.”

It’s important not to ignore the signs of secondary traumatic stress as it can increase the risk of future physical and mental health problems or substance abuse.

These may include persistent symptoms of hyperarousal or hypoarousal:


Intrusive thoughts
Exaggerated startle response
Panic attacks
Difficulty falling asleep


Poor concentration
Emotional detachment
Chronic fatigue
Social disconnection

What should you do if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of secondary traumatic stress?

Dr. Elbers offers a few suggestions that may provide some relief:

  1. Minimize your exposure to news stories, social media, video and images that provoke fear and anxiety.
  2. Get regular physical activity. A stressed body carries a lot of extra energy that needs to be discharged. Exertional exercise can help to release excess energy, improve sleep, and release endorphins in the body that help you feel good.
  3. Practice breathing a little slower and deeper than you’re used to breathing. Slow deep breathing calms the fear center in the brain that activates the stress response. This is a simple, yet powerful tool – the more you do it, the more it can help.
  4. Stay connected to family and friends. We are a tribal species, and naturally feel safer around people whom we are close to. Secure attachment releases oxytocin which makes us feel good and activates the vagus nerve which helps to keep us healthy.
  5. Make time every morning and/or evening to meditate and focus on things you are grateful for. This helps to deactivate the body’s stress response and reduce stress hormones that can negatively affect the brain and body.
  6. If symptoms are interfering with your daily activities, seek professional advice. Working with a counselor or therapist can help you or a loved one develop effective coping strategies.

While we cannot always control what happens in our lives, we can control our response to stressful events and how much we allow worry and fearful thoughts to occupy our mind. Transforming Anxiety: The HeartMath Solution for Overcoming Fear and Worry and Creating Serenity can be a helpful resource and starting point for learning techniques that can help to calm a worried and overactive mind.

Dr. Jorina Elbers is a pediatric neurologist who trained at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, and was an assistant professor at Stanford University for the last 6 years. She now works for the HeartMath Institute and in private practice in Central California.