signs of trauma exposure response

I recently read Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship on the recommendation of one of my professors. The book is, as its subtitle succinctly puts it, “an everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others.”

The author discusses how the trauma she was exposed to at work affected her life to the extent that she couldn’t do her job well or function well as a human. Many people who work in social services, the medical field, or other jobs that frequently expose people to others’ trauma. The book resonated with me because I have worked with domestic violence victims and people experiencing extreme poverty, to the extent that it creates trauma in their lives on a daily basis. The anecdote offered? Care for the self. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky tells us it’s impossible to care well for others if we are not well cared for.

Trauma Stewardship offers the following sixteen signs of experiencing trauma exposure response.


Note: As a human with both clinical PTSD and secondary trauma exposure, I found it difficult to parse out exactly where primary trauma ended and exposure trauma began. If you aren’t in a profession or life position where you are frequently exposed to trauma but this list is resonant with you, it may be worthwhile to chat with a mental health professional like a therapist about your own trauma.


you feel helpless and hopeless.

You are in despair about the state of the world, but feel powerless to do anything. You can see all the suffering that occurs and every effort feels pointless.


you can never do enough.

The sense that we “should be” doing more can be persistent. What if we did more to take care of ourselves, instead?


your creativity is diminished.

It’s harder for you to enjoy writing, painting, drawing, dancing, or whatever medium your creativity tends to sprout in.


you are hypervigilant.

Many people look over a cliff to an ocean and see a beautiful view. The author, on the other hand, can’t help but wonder how many suicides have occurred there. When we see trauma all the time, we can’t help but see trauma everywhere.


you struggle to listen and are deliberately avoidant.

If you, like me, have a box of unlistened to voicemails and a pile of unopened mail, you may be avoiding work that has begun to interfere with your ability to be well.


you have dissociative moments.

You have times when you “go away.” Sometimes other people even notice, ask where you’ve gone.


you have become less able to embrace complexity.

Are you always looking for signs of good and bad? Right and wrong? Maybe the world has started to look black and white.


you minimize things that don’t fall into the category of extreme hardship.

Hearing traumatic story after traumatic story can make “smaller” struggles seem like a thing to be minimized. Handling trauma with care, no matter its content, is essential to doing the work.


you are chronically exhausted and experience physical ailments.

The body keeps the score. If your body is struggling to keep up, it is likely asking you to slow down and listen.


you develop a sense of persecution.

The work you do is the most difficult, and most important, and you’re the only one who can do it.


you feel deeply guilty.

When you spend a majority of your time witnessing the most horrific parts of life, you begin to feel guilty for enjoying anything and for having any luxury in your own life.

you feel deeply afraid.

Everything seems dangerous, high risk, and worthy of avoiding.


you have become more angry and more cynical.

A sense of frustration and meaninglessness pervades your daily life.


you are less able to empathize and more eager to numb.

Your ability to resonate with others has decreased as you slip a bit from reality.


you have returned to an old addiction or developed a new one.

Use of alcohol, food, or another substance or activity as a coping mechanism indicates a need to assess exposure to secondary trauma.


you have a sense of grandiosity related to your work.

If you feel your work is the most significant, most important, and most crucial, you might be missing something and leaning into a sense of grandiosity.

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