Sadly, the news of the last few months has been riddled with devastating stories of terrorist attacks, police brutality, murder, rape, racism, and injustice, leaving many of us struggling with difficult emotions. With technological advances, we are receiving unrelenting minute to 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, sorrow, and trauma of others. However, 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 ranging from finding oneself glued to social media stories all the way to completely avoiding the news and/or discussions about these events. While some struggle with anger, sadness, and helplessness, others have described feeling emotionally exhausted from continual grieving that they have become numb and desensitized. What we as a nation and as world are realizing is that we are experiencing trauma.
Subsequently, as an audience we are vulnerable to a great amount of distress and even vicarious traumatization. This term, often interchangeable with compassion fatigue, was originally applied to therapists working with trauma and has now expanded to include a variety of contexts. Thus, in light of exposure to recent events, this idea 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
Anxiety and fear
Changes in beliefs related to safety, trust, power/control, esteem, and intimacy
These signs and 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 fear or discomfort. And yet, the challenge is that we face situations and interactions that bring discomfort nearly every day. So avoidance and shutting down our emotions can not only perpetuate discomfort, but it can create more suffering as we spend much of our time and energy trying not to feel something that is already there.
I won’t begin to pretend that I have the answer of how we heal as a nation and as a global community, but I believe the work of healing and change is in moving towards our fears and discomforts with a kind curiosity, rather than moving away. The emotional weight than comes with moving towards our experience is very real, and also we have the capacity to cultivate resilience in the face of stress and crises.
Research on vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue tells us that engaging in stress management, relaxation and contemplative practices, as well as general self-care, including exercise, rest, and a balanced diet can buffer the emotional stress.
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 there, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. This 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 autoplay off on social media pages, like Facebook
Schedule a news review time. Having parameters around the amount of time you spend watching news or scrolling through social media can make it easier to limit your exposure in a healthy way. For example, you may limit yourself to twenty 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, meaningless human suffering, and daily stress, our task is to connect with our values and engage in meaningful behavior. This will look differently person to person and for many of us will occur on a smaller scale. 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 then can we take 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. This post is featured on National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Brown, A., Marquis, A., & Guiffrida, D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 91(1), 96.
Bush, N. (2009). Compassion fatigue: Are you at risk? Oncology Nursing Forum: Clinical Challenges, 36(1), 24-28.
Gough, D. (2007). Emphathizing or falling in the river? Avoiding and addressing compassion fatigue among service providers. JADARA, 40(3), 13.
Huggard, P. (2003). Compassion fatigue: how much can I give? Medical Educational, 37(2), 163-164.