Recently, the news has been riddled with devastating stories of terrorist attacks, police brutality, murder, rape, racism and injustice, leaving many of us struggling with difficult emotions. Thanks to technological advances, we are receiving unrelenting minute-by-minute, graphic coverage of these stories with greater speed, intensity and repetition than ever before. For better or worse, the media invites us to share in the loss and trauma of others. And our innate ability to empathize with human suffering puts us at risk for carrying a heavy emotional burden.
I have increasingly had patients, friends and family share with me the impact this exposure has had on them. It has ranged from being glued to social media stories to completely avoiding the news or any related discussions. While some struggle with anger, sadness and helplessness, others have described feeling emotionally exhausted from continual grieving to the point that they have become numb and desensitized. What people are now realizing is that we are all experiencing trauma.
As an audience, we are all vulnerable to a great amount of distress and even vicarious traumatization. This term, often interchangeable with compassion fatigue, originally described therapists working with trauma and has now expanded to include a variety of contexts. Thus, in light of recent events, this concept has become extremely relevant.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of vicarious traumatization or compassion fatigue can occur quickly and unexpectedly and may include:
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- A tendency to withdraw and isolate
- High levels of stress
- Irritability and anger
- Feeling helpless
- Anxiety and fear
- Changes in beliefs related to safety, trust, power/control, esteem and intimacy
- Emotional numbness
These symptoms can become exacerbated with each additional viewing of that video clip or detailed survivor account. To be clear: I do not advocate for avoidance of these stories or discussions about them, as doing so is denying the reality of the world we live in and the pain inherent in existing in it. It is our natural tendency to move away from things that bring us discomfort. And yet, the challenge is that we face situations and interactions that bring discomfort nearly every day. However, when we spend much of our time and energy trying not to feel something that is already there, we create more distress and suffering in the long-term.
I won’t pretend that I have the answer to how we should heal as a nation and as a global community, but I believe in our ability to cultivate resilience in the face of stress and crises.
Building Resilience and Enhancing Well-being
1. Mindful Meditation: Mindfulness, or the moment-to-moment awareness of what is occurring internally and externally without judgment, can help us tune into our current emotional state and recognize distress as it emerges. Additionally, a mindfulness practice can cultivate our ability to acknowledge, experience and allow our emotions to be present, regardless of whether or not they are pleasant. Adopting an attitude of curiosity and compassion as we observe our experience makes mindful awareness a core practice in prevention, intervention and overall wellbeing.
2. Self-Care: Have a daily relaxation ritual (reading, stretching, yoga, journaling, etc.)
- Nurture your spiritual side
- Engage in movement and exercise
- Spend time with nature
- Play with your pet
- Connect with friends and family
3. Media Diet: Give yourself permission to limit your news and social media exposure.
- Turn video auto-play off on social media pages, such as Facebook
- Schedule a news review time. Having parameters around the amount of time you spend watching news or scrolling through social media can limit your exposure in a healthy way. For example, you may limit yourself to 20 minutes in the morning or evening.
- Unplug. Just as we power down and restart our electronics, it’s important to allow yourself to unplug from social media and engage with the world around you.
4. Make Meaning: In the face of pain and daily stress, our task is to connect with our values and engage in meaningful behavior. This will look differently person-to-person—it may entail volunteering, spending time at a place of worship, advocating or simply being kind to another human being. As Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and renowned psychotherapist, said; “Life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”
Most of us will continue running on auto-pilot carrying on with our normal routines, while directly or indirectly being exposed to these devastating news stories. While this is our normal mode of functioning, it can lead us to miss signs that stress is escalating or that we have numbed out. We have to learn to tune in to our emotional and physiological responses, because only when we do that can we take the appropriate care of ourselves. And only when we take appropriate care of ourselves can we engage in meaningful relationships, be more effective in work and life, and move towards our values and goals.
Deniz Ahmadinia, M.M.F.T. is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Candidate at Pepperdine University. She is finishing a year-long APA accredited internship at the VA Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center where she is receiving advanced training in evidence-based practices to treat trauma, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. She will soon begin a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the West Los Angeles VA where she will specialize in mindfulness-based and integrative health approaches. Deniz’s research interests include mindful parenting, trauma, interpersonal neurobiology, and mind-body approaches to stress reduction and wellbeing. Visit her at latherapyspot.com