The world is in turmoil. Each day, it seems, brings a new disaster, a new tragedy. Terrorism, hate, violence–these fill the news and social media, infecting not only adults but our children, our families.
Last year, my children’s schools had a series of lockdowns, week after week, because of phoned-in bomb threats throughout the school district. This was on the heels of the horrific school shootings that we all will never forget, and of course, everyone wanted to ensure the kids would be safe.
After a few months of investigation, it was discovered these were part of some online gaming scheme, where participants had to set up hard-to-trace bomb threats throughout the nation! My young children were traumatized by these lockdowns, so much so that I visited their schools to set up ways to help students feel safer and more comfortable, emotionally, during the lockdowns. And all this because some gamers thought it would be a thrill to set up innocuous bomb threats?
Vicarious Trauma from World Events
It is easy to feel traumatized by the events of the world. Whether we are directly impacted or not, these events have a ripple effect, leaking fear and anxiety and stress into all of our lives, in one way or another. We may vicariously experience trauma simply from hearing about or seeing images of these events. This trauma can be just as overwhelming as if we had actually been there, and it requires attention and treatment.
What are we to do?
There is no one magic solution for healing from trauma. We are each unique and experience traumatic events in our own unique ways. This means we will each need our own plan for healing from trauma.
The important thing to acknowledge, however, is we DO need a plan for healing, and that plan begins with self-care. How can we care for our needs during difficult times? Following are some answers for the questions you might have. Use these suggestions, in whatever combination feels most beneficial to you, to help you heal.
What is the psychological (and physical) impact of exposing yourself to traumatic events via television, radio and social media?
It is possible to be traumatized simply by watching or listening to details about violent and traumatic events. I refer to this as “second-hand, or vicarious, trauma.”
Exposing oneself to trauma and violence of any kind, even second-hand through TV, radio, or social media, can result in mental and physical trauma to one’s own psyche, brain, and body.
Trauma, by definition, is an emotional response to any event in which there is a real or perceived threat. This includes the threats of feeling like “the world is not safe,” “people are hurtful, hateful, and unsafe,” or “what is the world coming to?” all of which are common responses to the perpetual violence we witness through the news, especially these past years.
Possible symptoms of this kind of vicarious trauma include:
- extreme worry, fear, panic, anger, or anxiety
- feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or depression
- a negative view of the world, other people, and oneself that may impact self-esteem and self-worth
- physical symptoms, like gastrointestinal problems, headaches, trouble sleeping, and vulnerability to illness
What are some coping strategies to help us deal with tragedies in healthy ways?
While it can be healthy to be informed of what’s going on in the world, overexposing yourself to traumatic events through media is not healthy. It is one thing to watch a news segment or read an article about these events; it is quite another to spend hours doing these things.
1. Minimize and limit your interactions with videos, words, and images about traumatic events, first and foremost. Then, it is equally important that you process what you’re feeling in healthy ways, such as: talk about your feelings with a close friend or family member, write about what you’re experiencing, or seek help from a counselor or therapist who can help you discuss and seek understanding about what you feel, in healthy ways.
2. If you feel pulled to continually engage with the traumatic events, then set a time limit for yourself. “I will only watch this program for 15 minutes.” Or, “I will only look up facts about this for 30 minutes.” Set a timer, and then stop when it goes off, again giving yourself time to process what you feel afterword.
3. Don’t minimize what you feel. You may tell yourself you have no right to feel so traumatized or upset by violent acts, because you weren’t there, or it didn’t happen directly to you, but you do have a right to feel however you feel. When one soul is hurt, we all hurt, and violence on a grand scale is traumatic for one and all.
4. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes—sadness, heartache, disgust, anger, fear, distress. Whatever emotions arise, FEEL them. FEEL means “Freely Experience Emotions with Love” (“This is How We Grow,” 2013, Hibbert). Allow a feeling to come. Don’t fight or deny or push it away. Sit with it. Let it be there with you, and lovingly remind yourself the feeling is not you. Sit with it, breathe deeply, and over time, it will loosen and lighten. If the feeling feels too powerful, set a timer for 5 minutes. FEEL until the timer goes off, and then allow yourself to put it out of your mind until tomorrow. Repeat each day, perhaps increasing the time, until the emotions are no longer overwhelming. Again, a therapist can be very helpful with this.
Why is self-care important in the face of tragedy and trauma?
Self-care is always important, but especially in the face of tragedy and trauma, because without it, you will have nothing left to help you cope. You can’t expect to overcome intense feelings, thoughts, and experiences without caring for your brain, body, mind, and emotions, and that’s what self-care is all about.
Top Self-Care Practices for Overcoming Trauma
The top three self-care practices I recommend, especially in times of trauma are: 1) sleep/rest, 2) exercise, and 3) nutrition. These are the three main ways we create energy, and we need energy to navigate the emotional ups and downs that come with traumatic experiences. Keep in mind, these can also be used to help children and the entire family heal. (More on Children & Grief, and Family and Grief, here)
1. Sleep as much as you need, and you may need more sleep than usual during this time of healing. If insomnia is an issue for you, talk to your doctor about a mild, temporary sleep aid to help you back to better sleep. Also, be sure to avoid caffeine completely, if possible, or late in the day at the least, and turn off electronics at least an hour or two before bed. Set up a calming bedtime routine to help coax you to sleep. And nap! Naps, sleeping in on weekends, and any extra sleep you can get help pay back that sleep debt that seems to accompany difficult times of life.
2. Exercise is one of the very best things we can do for our brain, body, and mind. It is like medicine in the treatment of a host of medical and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks, and other trauma-related issues. Exercise increases the neurotransmitters in the brain, like Serotonin, that make you feel well. It helps you sleep better, increases energy and “good” feelings, improves self-esteem/self-worth, and can even improve relationships. Make exercise work for you by doing activities you enjoy and just seeking to move. Start small, like taking an easy walk around the block, make it fun by playing sports or doing trying something new, use exercise to relax, like doing yoga and stretching, and mostly, take it at your own pace. My book “8 Keys to mental Health Through Exercise” is packed with strategies, tools, and ideas to get, and keep, you moving.
3. Nourishment and nutrition. Put foods into your body that give you energy; you’re going to need it. Eat the rainbow, seeking vibrantly-colored foods, protein, and whole grains. Omega 3 fatty acids are another great brain and mental health booster, so if you’re not eating foods like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed, add a supplement.
Additional Powerful Self-Care Practices
4. Cry, talk, and grieve. Let it all out with a trusted friend or family member. It’s good to let your emotions flow, and to grieve the losses that come with traumatic events.
5. Spiritual connection. Whatever this means to you, it’s important to reinforce your connection with something Greater. This may come through prayer, meditation, nature, family, mindfulness, or other practices, but it’s important to work on keeping this connection strong.
6. Rest, relax, and breathe. Give yourself a break. Let yourself heal. Set aside time for you. Rest through naps, relax by doing things you enjoy like getting a massage, watching a movie, or spending time with those you love. Whatever helps you let go of all that troubles you and just “be” for a while, do that.
7. Practice mindfulness. Focus on the present moment. Breathe it in, deeply, and out, slowly. Notice the beauty around you as you walk around your neighborhood. Pay attention to your child’s laughter, and drink in your partner’s embrace. When we purposefully focus on what’s right in front of us, moment-by-moment, when we breathe and meditate and ponder on the good that’s sometimes hard to see, we will find greater peace, love, and healing.
Tips for overcoming the sense of helplessness, or feeling the world is a dangerous place
1. First, acknowledge your worries and fear. Yes, the world can be dangerous. But again, focus on right now. Are you in danger now? Probably not. Remind yourself that you are safe right now.
2. Then, you can tackle the fears. We have the wrong idea about fear. Fear is not there to prevent bad things from happening; it usually prevents good. It stops you in your track and prevents you from moving forward into life. Tackle the fear by FEELing it (see above), talking about, writing about, and moving it out of your body through exercise. If it comes again, re-acknowledge it, FEEL, and move through it again.
3. It is also helpful to talk with a counselor, who can give you the tools to hear and change your thoughts, which are often the source of feelings of helplessness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a wonderful tool to help you do this. (More on CBT here) Keep searching until you find the right person to help you, and your family, heal.
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