Prevent and Manage Secondary Traumatic Stress

On another page, we explained that a key driver of infighting is secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS is just like post-traumatic stress, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) except that post-traumatic stress affects the direct victims of violence, while STS affects the witnesses to violence. (STS has also been referred to as “vicarious traumatization” and “compassion fatigue.”)

If you haven’t yet read that page, please do so before reading this one.

Tips for preventing and managing STS

Get informed.

Learn about the triggers and symptoms of STS, and about your own experience of it. A great resource is, where you can also find the excellent book Trauma Stewardship, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. For vegan advocates, check out Beyond Beliefs by Melanie Joy and the online course Sustainable Vegan Advocacy.

Don’t overwitness.

Don’t witness more violence than you absolutely have to. Many advocates feel compelled to bear witness to suffering, to watch graphic videos and read about atrocities.

Sometimes advocates do so out of a sense of obligation to the victims: “Given what they’re going through, the least I can do is not turn away from their suffering.” 

It can be helpful to think of your trauma as an entity that’s taken up residence inside you. This entity has a survival instinct, and the way it keeps itself alive is by convincing you to feed it more traumatic material. Your trauma feeds on violence, and the more violence you consume, the stronger your trauma grows. 

Sometimes advocates unnecessarily consume violence because they fear that if they stop doing so, they’ll stop caring and become inactive.

Give yourself permission to let your trauma go.

Just because you stop being traumatized, this doesn’t mean you’ll stop having empathy. Give yourself permission to let your trauma go. In doing so, you’ll come to your activism from a healthy place of resilience, not from a place of trauma. 

Of course, sometimes we have to bear witness to violence. The key is to limit the amount you take in as much as possible.

Don’t make others unintentional witnesses.

Be very careful about how much traumatic material you share with others, so that you don’t end up traumatizing them. Often, traumatized advocates traumatize other advocates, which feeds the epidemic of secondary traumatic stress in our movements.

In general, less is more; only share violent information if it’s absolutely necessary for the other person to be aware of it. And ask their permission before sharing, so that they’re not caught off-guard and can make their own choices about what information to take in. 

When we shock people with traumatic material, they can experience us as inflicting emotional violence on them (which we are). They can become traumatized by what they witness, and think of us as a “perpetrator” of violence, rather than as someone who’s trying to end violence. If you do need to share violent material with others, such as when you’re conducting outreach to nonadvocates, always ask for consent and give a trigger warning.

Don’t let others make you an unintentional witness.

Protect your boundaries and let others know that you don’t want to hear (or read or watch) violent material. Even if someone is mid-sentence, you can ask them to please stop sharing.

Learn to prevent yourself from becoming dysregulated, and to self-regulate (and to regulate others).

You can find tips and resources on our page about dysregulation.

Give yourself permission to take care of your needs on a daily basis. 

STS often causes us to become self-neglecting. We tend to overfocus on ending the suffering of others, and can get caught up in overworking. We can also feel guilty for the privilege we have not to be suffering like others are. 

When we don’t attend to our needs, we’re less resilient and more prone to traumatization. We’re also more likely to burn out, as self-neglect is a key cause of burnout. 

Attend to your physical needs (e.g., for proper sleep, nutrition, fitness, etc.), psychological needs (e.g., for intellectual stimulation, entertainment, etc.), social needs (e.g., to have meaningful experiences with others), and “spiritual” needs (e.g., for meaning and purpose) regularly.

Build relational literacy and cultivate healthy relationships.

Healthy relationships keep us resilient and are protective against a number of problems, including physical and psychological illnesses. The more you build relational literacy, the better able you’ll be to cultivate and maintain healthy relational connections. 

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