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Secondary Traumatic Stress – The High Cost of Caring

Jan 11, 2021 | Interpreter Education

by: Lisa Hendrickson, CI - NIR Interpreter Coordinator

What is Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)?

Secondary Traumatic Stress (and its kin terms: Empathic Distress, Vicarious Trauma, and Secondary Victimization) is:

Emotional, physical, or spiritual distress precipitated by exposure to people or animals who are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and/or suffering.

Why is this a common issue?

Our bodies are subject to a phenomenon called “Physiological Synchrony”—meaning that our emotional mind and physiological body are intimately intertwined and interdependent.

But why is this such a common issue specifically for interpreters?

Internalizing experiences

  • Communicating in first person
  • “Taking in” the content, visceral experience

Cannot react, help, or advise

No closure after leaving the assignment

What are the Risk Factors?

  • Biological Make-up
  • Personal Well-Being
  • Work Environment
  • Age
  • Experience Level
  • Perfectionism

Recognize the Symptoms!


  • Numb, hopeless, detached
  • Anger/Irritation
  • Not enjoying things previously enjoyed
  • Negative and/or Impatient
  • General Dissatisfaction


  • Low energy, fatigue
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Nightmares
  • Exhaustion
  • Low motivation


  • Increased errors
  • Low job morale
  • Avoidance of responsibilities
  • Inflexible
  • Subpar job performance


  • Irresponsible behavior
  • Workaholic
  • Pushing others away
  • Substance abuse
  • Sleep changes


  • Confusion
  • Diminished concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Trauma imagery


  • Questioning the meaning of life
  • Lacking spiritual self-satisfaction


  • Withdrawing from friends & family
  • Becoming emotionally unavailable

In which settings would we expect interpreters to experience Secondary trauma?

  • Medical?
  • Educational: K-12?
  • Educational: Post-Secondary?
  • Governmental?
  • Political?
  • Mental Health?
  • Business / Corporate?
  • VRS?
  • VRI?

The answer to this question is “ALL”! Traumatic experiences, imagery, retelling, and events can arise in any and all interpreting settings. While they tend to be more common in some settings than others, interpreters must be prepared to face these situations at any time in any setting.

What are Burnout and Compassion Fatigue, and why are these important with regard to STS?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.

Compassion Fatigue is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others.

Burnout can lead to increased instances of compassion fatigue, and both can ultimately set interpreters up to be more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress.

How can interpreters avoid the pitfalls of burnout?

First, take an inventory of your roles!

Do not forget roles that you take on sporadically but that may not be a part of your everyday life. These are important too! Example: HOA Member, neighbor, etc.

How many did you list? 10? 25? 50?

Remember — roles can be fulfilling and are a vital part of our lives, but not being able to find balance within those roles can lead to burnout.

Consider if it is time to reevaluate your roles?

Take a hard look at the myriad of roles you take on daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Certainly, there are some that are non-negotiable: Mom, Kid-Chauffeur, Brother, Co-worker….but what about “cook” for example?

  • Do you need to cook three meals a day from scratch daily? Maybe your budget can accommodate some pre-prepared, healthy foods. Or maybe you can prepare large quantities on a day off to freeze and thaw a few times a week.
  • Do you have to run the bake sale for the PTA this year? Maybe you can offer to assist and just bake a few items this year.

Practice saying “no” politely!

Burnout makes us all more susceptible to
secondary traumatic stress!

How can we avoid the effects of secondary traumatic stress?

  • Self-Care
  • Peer Care
  • Professional Care

Self-care comes in many forms, and successful self-care techniques can be as unique as the people who practice them.
Here are just a few that have proven successful: Speaking up- Ask for a team when needed, turn down trigger assignments, etc.

Private Vent- When possible, remove yourself from the situation to “blow off steam”

Self-Talk- Inwardly remind yourself that you are okay, and you will get through the situation. Positivity is important!

Deep Breathing- Calms anxiety, relaxes the mind and body.
Reading (or TV/Movies/Video Games)


Emotional Inventory- Evaluate your emotional responses to stimuli.

Introspection- Focus on beliefs, values, and emotions.

Detox Bath


Exercise- Stimulates the production of Endorphins, natural painkiller and mood lifter.

Peer-care can also be a very helpful tool to relieve the effects of STS:

  • Team – Open Discussion
  • Colleagues – Confidential Discussion
  • Peer consultation groups – Confidential Discussion

*Remember the CPC and confidentiality when sharing with colleagues and/or Peer Consultation Groups! No names, locations, or identifying specifics.

Professional Care also is available in several formats depending on the presenting symptoms:

  • Counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Self-help groups

Helpful resources for Professional Care:


Anderson, Arlyn (2011) “Peer Support and Consultation Project for Interpreters: A Model for
Supporting the Well-Being of Interpreters who Practice in Mental Health Settings,”
Journal of Interpretation: Vol. 21 : Iss. 1 , Article 2.

Cannon, E. J., Mattioli, D., & Walters, L. (2018). Focusing on the Caregiver: Compassion Fatigue

Awareness and Understanding. MEDSURG Nursing,27(5), 323-329.

Darroch, E., & Dempsey, R. “Interpreters’ Experiences of Transferential Dynamics,
Vicarious Traumatisation, and Their Need for Support and Supervision: A Systematic
Literature Review.” The European Journal of Counselling Psychology, vol. 4, no. 2,
2016, pp. 166–190., doi:10.5964/ejcop.v4i2.76.

Guthmann, D., Ed.D., Lybarger, R., M.A., CCDCR, & Sandburg, K. A., B.S., CCDCR. (n.d.).
Chemical Dependency Treatment: Specialized Approaches for Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Clients. Retrieved March 22, 2019, from

Macdonald, Jami L. (2015) “Vicarious Trauma as Applied to the Professional Sign Language
Interpreter,” Montview Liberty University Journal of Undergraduate Research: Vol. 1:
Iss. 1, Article 6.

Schwenke, T. J. (2015). Sign Language Interpreters and Burnout: Exploring Perfectionism and
Coping. Journal of the American Deafness & Rehabilitation Association,49(2), 121-143.
Retrieved March 22, 2019.

Standard Practice Papers. (2007). Retrieved March 20, 2019,
from https://www.rid.org/about- rid/about-interpreting/standard-practice-papers/

West, Allison L. “Associations Among Attachment Style, Burnout, and Compassion Fatigue in
Health and Human Service Workers: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Human Behavior
in the Social Environment, vol. 25, no. 6, 2015, pp. 571–590.,

Williams, A. (2018, July 3). Vicarious Trauma Archives. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://www.tendacademy.ca/category/vicarious-trauma/

Zenizo, A. L. (2013). Self-care in the field of interpreting (master’s thesis). Western Oregon
University, Monmouth, Oregon. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.wou.edu/theses/

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