Learn about derivative stress, its dangerous effects and how to begin healing from it.
by CHRIS ADSIT
In most people’s minds, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is associated with life-shattering events, such as the horrors of war, firefights with criminals, life-threatening assaults, and other near-death experiences. But crushing anxiety can gain entrance to the lives of military service members and first responders through a gateway that is far more common than critical incidents, and yet is just as dangerous to a person’s mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. But you have probably never even heard of it.
Here’s how it sounds when they talk about it….
I don’t know what’s wrong.
It seems like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder to me. Listen to these symptoms: I’m having nightmares, I dread crowds and meeting new people. My anger ramps up fast, for no good reason. I’m distracted on the job, which has been leading to mistakes, which have been raising eyebrows among my co-workers, which makes me mad – at them and at myself. I’m jumpy, reactive, and my sleep is lousy. It’s PTSD, right?
But here’s the problem. I shouldn’t have PTSD. I’ve had some stressful days on the job, but my life has never been on the line. I’ve never really experienced any major trauma.
I shouldn’t have PTSD. I’ve had some stressful days on the job, but my life has never been on the line. I’ve never really experienced any major trauma.
I look at some of my buddies, and think about the tough spots they’ve been in. They should have PTSD – some do, and some don’t. But why am I struggling? I feel like a big faker, like those guys who pretend they are war heroes to impress people, but were never even in the military. “Stolen valor,” they call it. Sometimes I feel like one of them. I haven’t earned these symptoms.
It’s called Derivative Stress and it is defined as “long-lasting emotional reactions which derive their impact from trauma that happened to another person.” People who experience Derivative Stress aren’t seeking out these tormenting reactions and they aren’t expecting sympathy or honor. They just want to do their job. But their symptoms leave them feeling confused, guilty and depressed because they aren’t in line with the level of trauma they’ve encountered.
If this is you, you need to know this condition is common among first responders and military service members, as well as their spouses and children. And there are things you can do about it.
Who does it affect?
Derivative Stress occurs most frequently in empathetic, compassionate, sacrificially dedicated people – typically those who are attracted to the protective, medical, and counseling fields. They simply cannot look dispassionately on someone who has experienced trauma and pain. They feel it, absorb it, and deeply desire to relieve the sufferer’s distress.
To break things down a bit further, there are actually three different “brands” of Derivative Stress. Perhaps you have seen these in your own life or in the lives of those you care about.
- Secondary Traumatic Stress: When a person is negatively affected by a traumatic experience that happened to someone else, producing typical stress and trauma symptoms. This is very common in spouses, children, friends and co-workers of first responders and military service members.
- Burnout: Anxiety that develops due to spending a great deal of time in high stress workplaces where the work tempo is relentless, the hours long, breaks and sleep are inadequate or interrupted, and even though they have not experienced any direct trauma, the victim of burnout feels traumatized. It’s characterized by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, decreased motivation, and apathy.
- Compassion Fatigue: When a person becomes immersed in the lives of those who have been traumatized, exposing themselves deeply to their suffering until their “horror story repository” overflows. Their compassion skills get overused, and their ability to feel for and care for hurting people is eroded. And in an involuntary self-protection move, they are compelled to draw back from their responsibilities, and from those they used to serve sacrificially. Compassion Fatigue can overwhelm a person in a relatively short period compared to Burnout.
But it can be healed. Here’s How…
Derivative Stress is a condition that can be eliminated. But as with any injury or wound, only intentional action on your part will bring healing. Here are some practical suggestions that will facilitate your recovery:
The ABC’s of Dealing with Derivative Stress1
A – Awareness: Healing begins by being aware of the symptoms of Derivative Stress, and taking action when you see them in yourself or others. Here are some key symptoms:
- Concentration and focus difficulties
- The perception that obligations outweigh your resources
- Apathy and emotional numbness
- Isolation and withdrawal
- Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion
- Great reluctance to go to work
- Intrusion symptoms in thoughts, dreams, nightmares
- Bottled up emotions, which occasionally angrily explode
- Losing compassion for people you serve, or those you work with
- Pervasive pessimism
It’s critical that you recognize the true source of your symptoms. Focus on the fact that you are reacting in a compassionate way to the stress and trauma of others. This is normally a very admirable thing, and you should be reminded of this. But you’re running out of gas and need to stop and fill your tank. You’re not crazy, you’re just in over your head at the moment. So don’t feel the need to minimize, marginalize, or discount your symptoms. They are legitimate, and you have earned them.
B – Balance: Remember that you are a three-dimensional being: physical, mental, and spiritual. Do a self-assessment on your “dimensional balance.”
- Physical. Are you getting enough exercise, eating healthy food, getting enough rest and good quality sleep? Are you abusing drugs or alcohol? Can you take a whole day off away from all work – a “sabbath?”
- Mental. Are you taking mental breaks by engaging in stimulating, entertaining, and relaxing activities that have little or nothing to do with your job? Are you hanging out with people you love? Can you find opportunities to decompress, seeking out silence and solitude from time to time?
- Spiritual. How are you feeding your soul? Are you cultivating your relationship with God? Can you find some time for prayer, worship, or reading the Bible? How long has it been since you went to church? Have you been asking God for help dealing with your stress?
C – Connection: Often Derivative Stress leads us to push others away. But connecting with a counselor, clergy, or friend may be the most valuable thing you could do. Build a life outside of your career and let your family into your struggles as you ask them for support.
One thing we have clearly observed in our work with hundreds in the military and first responder communities is that Derivative Stress is real. It is nothing to be ashamed of. You have stolen nothing. It is a soul wound, just as incapacitating as any other type of wound. And you can experience healing.
CHRIS ADSIT is the Resource Coordinator for REBOOT Recovery and the co-founder of REBOOT First Responders.
 “Compassion Fatigue.” The American Institute of Stress, 4 Jan. 2017, www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue.