Narratives of secondary traumatic stress : stories of struggle and hope




Arvay, Marla Jean

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Even though posttraumatic stress theory has been extensively developed in the psychological and medical literature, development of secondary traumatic stress theory is still in its infancy. The traumatology literature reveals a focus on traumatized victims and, with few exceptions, excludes those who are secondarily traumatized (Figley, 1995). Secondary, or vicarious, trauma has become more topical over the past 7 years. Claims have recently been made that counselors working in the field of trauma are vulnerable and at risk for developing trauma symptoms similar to those experienced by their traumatized clients. Descriptors such as “compassion fatigue” (Figley, 1995), “traumatic countertransference” (Herman, 1992), and “contact victimization” (Courtois, 1988) are used in the trauma literature to capture the essence of this phenomenon, which is thought to be a natural consequence of knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. For a trauma counselor, this significant other is the client with whom a caring and often long-term relationship has been established. The American Psychiatric Association’s (1994) fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) refers to a secondary traumatic stress reaction, but omits discussion of the implications. Empirical research on secondary traumatic stress is minimal: Most focuses on survey data that report incidence levels and correlate demographic variables and symptoms. Qualitative research into the lived experience of counselors working in the field of trauma is absent from the literature. This research study is an investigation into the meanings of experiences of struggling with secondary traumatic stress. The researcher sought to answer the question, “What meanings do trauma counselors make of their struggles with secondary traumatic stress?” Four counselors working in the field of trauma co-constructed narratives on their struggles with secondary traumatic stress. Three conversations were held with each participant. A reflexive narrative method was designed for data collection and narrative analyses were conducted at three levels of interpretation; (a) textual interpretation of the research conversations, (b) interpretation of the research interactions, and (c) four collaborative interpretive readings of the narrative accounts. Narrative analyses generated the following salient aspects of the participants’ struggles with secondary traumatic stress: (a) struggling with changing beliefs, (b) intrapsychic struggles, (c) struggling with the therapeutic relationship, (d) work-related struggles, (e) struggling with social support, (f) struggling with power issues, and (g) struggling with physical illness. Implications for professional practice, research, and education were addressed.