Secondary traumatic stress and disruptions to interpersonal functioning among mental health therapists

J Interpers Violence. 2014 May;29(8):1477-96. doi: 10.1177/0886260513507135. Epub 2013 Nov 27.


Disruptions within interpersonal relationships are often cited as a symptom of secondary traumatic stress (STS) and vicarious trauma among mental health therapists. However, the primary evidence to support these claims is based on theoretical explanations and limited descriptive data. The current study sought to test the theoretical model of STS and to extend prior research by directly measuring interpersonal and sexual disruptions and their association with STS symptomology. The study hypothesized that mental health therapists with higher levels of intrusion, avoidance, and arousal symptoms would also report disruptions in their interpersonal relationships. A total of 320 licensed mental health therapists completed the online study questionnaire. Results of the current study were mixed. Higher levels of STS symptoms showed a significant association with lower relationship satisfaction, lower social intimacy, less use of constructive communication patterns, and more use of avoidance communication and demand-withdrawal communication patterns. These relationships remained after controlling for gender, years of counseling experience, and exposure level to trauma clients. However, no association was found between STS, sexual activity interest, and sexual relationship satisfaction. Implications of these findings are reviewed.

Keywords: interpersonal functioning; secondary traumatic stress; vicarious trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic / psychology*
  • Young Adult