Like many others checking social media this morning, I received a Facebook notification that a good friend had “marked herself as safe” during a shooting that had occurred last night in Las Vegas where she lives. I felt my eyebrows press together in confusion and alarm. I quickly thumbed through tabs on my phone to see what had happened.
Over the next 20-30 minutes, I viewed the shooting timeline, photos from people hiding from the shooting, infographics comparing the “deadliest” shootings in our country’s recent history, remarkably high numbers of people who were injured and killed, and a description of the shock experienced by the shooter’s brother upon hearing the news.
Dozens of friends’ posts poured into my feed with their own reactions to the news. There was no shortage of coverage, and I could have continued poring over details and commentaries for hours as updates were posted.
As I considered the reach a shooting like this would have in our country, my mind shifted to how many people throughout our nation would experience vicarious trauma.
The American Counseling Association describes vicarious trauma as “the emotional residue of exposure” that people in the mental health field may experience after working with so many clients who are processing trauma and pain.
All to say, a person does not have to actually experience a trauma firsthand to be impacted deeply.
Fast forward to this morning. Millions of people are following the story, seeing first-hand details, photos, and tweets emerge–and many of which are very much unedited. Then, there are those who were supposed to have been there that night. Those who are awaiting to hear an update about loved ones. Those who had recently been to Vegas, a popular “getaway.” Those who had been to that performer’s concerts in the past or who were to see him the next week. Those whose watching this story reminded them of a different memory.
“Can I really feel the impacts of trauma simply by reading about an event on Facebook?”
In a study by the British Psychology Society, almost 200 people were assessed for trauma after they’d used social media covering major tragedies, such as mass shootings and the collapse of the twin towers. Almost a quarter of those in the study scored high on clinical PTSD assessments, despite not having previous trauma or being present for the event. The study showed that the more a person watched an event, the more they were impacted. And, those with “outgoing, extroverted personalities” appeared to have higher risk of experience significant symptoms of trauma.
7 Tips for Preventing Vicarious Trauma
- Limit your exposure. Move away from the conversations, switch and look at different stories, and focus yourself in your body in this moment. You don’t necessarily have to avoid it 100%, but regulate your exposure and make sure you are paying attention to your sense of “Is it enough?” to consider if it’s time to step away. Especially avoid repetitive exposure to the same stories, sound bytes, and facts.
- Don’t judge yourself for feeling helpless or by having good moments. In an article by CNN after the shootings in Paris, Ali Dixon from the Anxiety & Stress Management Institute in Atlanta discussed, “It’s common to feel guilty when our lives are going well, and we see so much devastation around us. One reason this occurs is because we feel out of control and wish we could help. If we can continue to engage in activities that create positive energy for us, we can in turn give that positive energy back to the world around us.”
- Strengthen your odds for resiliency. Go for a walk. Break a sweat. Exercise has a strong association with those who have a greater resilience to such stressful events.
- Say “no.” Take things a little more slowly. Don’t drain yourself by going at your same pace when you have been struggling with the news headlines from this week. You don’t have to be there for everything and everyone this week. Just be bit more mindful and more gentle with how much you can take and where your boundaries are.
- Root yourself in gratitude. Give thoughtful comments to those around you for what about them you’re specifically grateful for. Make a list of all of the good you see in the world. Every little bit counts. The car that lets you cross over. The chance to feel sunlight on your face. The food you have that gives you strength. Not only does this help you focus on the good and positive in the world, it also helps you focus on the good you’re capable of creating and how to get outside any anxiety or depression you may be experiencing.
- Postpone social media by 15 seconds. Anytime you have the inclination to check inclination, first feel present in your body: take 3 deep belly breaths and press your feet against the ground and your back against the chair. Then, tell yourself what you are grateful for about who you are and what is good in your life. This can take just 15 seconds, but it lets YOU determine how you are, not social media.
- Talk to a professional. Even if it’s just a session or two, it might be worth talking to someone who can help you handle any feelings that are overwhelming you from this headlining story. If you notice your physical health (eating, sleeping, activity) or emotional and mental wellbeing (stress level, fears, sadness, social activities) no longer aligning with the life that you want, consider if talking to a professional may be right for you.
Childs, E., & de Wit, H. (2014). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers In Physiology, 5161. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00161