Understanding Secondary Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout in First Responders and High-Stress Professions


Secondary Trauma, also known as Vicarious Trauma, may be experienced by those in high-stress helping professions who have frequent contact and interactions with people suffering from post-traumatic stress, acute stress, and who are exposed to violent, dangerous situations. These interactions can be either direct or indirect, but exposure to the traumatic experience or the narrative of that event results in the professional developing secondary traumatization and the associated symptoms. Professions frequently exposed to vicarious trauma include police officers, EMTs, firefighters, dispatchers, counselors/therapists, doctors and nurses, lawyers, caseworkers/social workers, military personnel, and victim advocates. 

Compassion Fatigue, while similar, encompasses a broader range of reactions to working in a helping role, and includes professionals and caregivers who develop high levels of stress or anxiety as a result of their work assisting others in need. Compassion Fatigue can often occur suddenly and cause significant disruption in occupational and social functioning. These sudden changes may additionally lead to self-doubt and confusion, exacerbating already severe stress. 

Burnout, often used interchangeably with Compassion Fatigue, actually differs in a few significant ways from its counterpart. Often, professionals dealing with burnout have developed the stress and frustration over time, and may be struggling with feelings of wanting to avoid their clients and/or co-workers altogether. Additionally, burnout is not limited to those in helping fields and can occur within any working profession. While individuals in high-stress positions and toxic or dysfunctional work environments are at greater risk for burnout, anyone can experience the accompanying resentfulness, avoidance, and frustration. 

Working with you as your therapist through these difficulties, I focus on which specific issue has brought you in and tailor my approach accordingly. However, whether we are focusing on reducing secondary trauma symptoms or addressing elevated stress, I will also empower you, promote self-awareness, and help you develop self-care strategies to ensure your long-term goals and successes are achievable. 


First Responder Specific Resources

Serve & Protect 24/7 Confidential Hotline (Law Enforcement)

 (615) 373-8000


Fire/EMS Confidential Helpline

1-888-731-FIRE (3473)


Safe Call Now 24/7 Confidential Hotline (All public safety and emergency services personnel and their families)

(206) 459-3020


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK (8255)


Additionally, any Colorado emergency responder can text "BADGE" to 741741 for free, immediate, completely confidential assistance. Text with a trained Crisis Counselor regarding any crisis: work-related, personal, substance use, depression, romantic, financial…This is a free service available 24/7 to Colorado Emergency Responders.