Stress, Cortisol & Secondary Trauma

Published February 9, 2013 by thefamilyof5

Stress is defined as an organism’s total response to an environmental condition or stimulus, also known as a stressor. Stress typically describes a negative condition that can have an impact on an organism’s mental and physical well-being.

Cortisol is released in response to stress, sparing available glucose for the brain, generating new energy from stored reserves, and diverting energy away from low-priority activities (such as the immune system) in order to survive immediate threats or prepare for the exertion of rising to a new day. However, prolonged cortisol secretion (which may be due to chronic stress) results in significant physiological changes.
Children who have suffered early neglect or abuse have higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels throughout their lives. High cortisol levels are associated with abdominal weight gain, sleep disorders, anxiety, cognitive issues (learning, memory). If your child had a difficult start in life (which can include prenatal trauma or stress), he or she is likely to be in fight or flight mode far more often than the average person.

Secondary Trauma
Secondary traumatic stress is a risk we incur when we engage empathically with a child who has been traumatised. Charles Figley (1995) defines secondary traumatic stress as “the natural consequent behaviours resulting from knowledge about a traumatising event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from wanting to help a traumatised or suffering person.”

Living with my girls is stressful, not necessarily because there are 3 of them and 3 kids are exhausting (although I won’t deny 3 is hard work), but because they’re 3 stressed out kids. They’re on constant high alert and their ‘stress’ is constantly seeping from their pores and contaminating those around them, mainly me.

They’re on a constant level of high alert. If I cough they jump, when I shout up the stairs ‘don’t forget to put your socks on’ someone covers their ears in panic, if I move too quickly, get irritated or flustered or do something unpredictable they’re filled with fear. They watch me constantly, try and read my every thought and pre-empt my every move. Yet If I’m ill or tired they’re filled with dread over who will take care of them.

They watch everyone, no one escapes their watchful eye. They listen, they see, they feel, everything.

Like any parent I worry about the if’s, the but’s and the maybe’s. I worry about the future and what it holds for us, and I worry about the things I cannot change.

My stress level’s are at an all time high. The girls had an unpredictable, traumatic and chaotic start to life. I’m on constant high alert because they are.

Its a vicious circle of trauma and secondary trauma.


8 comments on “Stress, Cortisol & Secondary Trauma

  • You’ve described it all so clearly, easy to understand. People need to read posts like this to know what it is truly like to be an adoptive parent. Hope that you are able to catch even a small break every now and then.

    Thank you for sharing with the Weekly Adoption Shout Out

  • As The Puffin Diaries says, you’ve written about this so clearly, thank you. It’s hard, and I know too well the damage that secondary trauma or leaking trauma can cause.

    I hope you manage some time for yourself, but also that things improve for you (especially on the sleep front) xx

    Thanks also for linking up with the Weekly Adoption Shout Out x

    • Thank you for your kind words. I often struggle to get my head round some of the complex descriptions of ‘adoption’ things, so if you say this is easy to understand then that’s great, hopefully it’ll help others to grasp the concept too 🙂

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