This article is going to explore how we can cope with the trauma we see everyday on the news and on social media. We experience so much of the world today through our televisions, computers, and phones. War stories, injustice, political and celebrity scandals, heroic dogs, and cute kittens grab our attention numerous times on a daily basis. We have access to more information than ever before. Technology is an integral part of our daily lives and many of us would struggle to get by without it. But as useful as modern technology is, it can unfortunately have quite a negative impact on our emotional, behavioral, and psychological health. Many of us spend a lot of time looking at our phones or computer screens for work, entertainment, socializing, and education. We have the world’s business in our pockets, a click away from the latest news or scandals.
In 1990, the term ‘vicarious trauma’ was coined by Lisa I. McCann and Laurie A. Pearlman. Vicarious trauma is a term used to describe the indirect exposure to trauma experienced by someone receiving a first hand account or narrative of a traumatic experience. This is a common occurrence for those in the helping professions, like therapists and counselors, police officers, doctors, and rescue workers. Vicarious trauma can also occur in a person who has a close relationship with a trauma survivor. The therapist/doctor/partner hears stories of traumatic experiences and may become overwhelmed by the weight of it, resulting in a second hand experience that affects the general world view of the person. There is an awful lot of trauma in the world and overexposure to that trauma can leave people feeling helpless and hopeless, with a dampened sense of optimism.
So you might be thinking – “I’m not a therapist or a doctor, how can vicarious trauma affect me?”. As mentioned earlier, we are exposed to torrents and bombardments of news every single day through our screens. Bombs are dropped in war torn countries, world leaders are exposed for immoral behavior, diseases such as the most recent coronavirus pandemic spread and affect thousands, sexual abuse cases and accusations arise, and that could all be news in a day.
How does the information impact us?
Though you may not even realize it, your exposure to all of this information could be having a negative impact on your life. How many times do you check your phone in a day? If you’re meeting a friend for coffee, and they’re a few minutes late, you’re probably going to check your phone. In those few minutes you could potentially read an article about each of the above examples of news stories. That’s a lot of information to read and then look away from without being affected. Humans are naturally empathic, so we can find it hard to detach from the pain experienced by others. Vicarious trauma can affect anyone, especially given the overexposure to upsetting news that we all experience.
So how can we know if we are overexposed and at risk of trauma?
It begins with looking within and noticing what is happening. We must take some of our attention away from the updates and instead bring our attention to ourselves, to our feelings and needs. One symptom of vicarious trauma is emotional changes that affect our mood on a daily basis. It is common for people to experience irritability and insecurity, hopelessness and helplessness in the face of upsetting news. The greater the exposure, the greater the negative impact.
Behavioral change may also be an indicator of overexposure to news and social media. Behavioral changes can look like isolation from friends and family, reluctance or avoidance of socializing, or over-reliance on substances to shift focus away from the pain.
Changes in thought may also occur, like difficulty concentrating, inability to think of things other than the bad news, or a shift in one’s general outlook on life. The bombardment of bad news is a powerful force in shifting one’s perspective from one of optimism to one of cold pessimism.
How can we cope?
When we notice these changes within ourselves, it is time to take responsibility and focus on our own happiness. We must practice self-care in order to remain emotionally healthy, so we can be present in our personal lives, present to our own issues, and present with those we love. There is of course an incomprehensible amount of negativity in the world, but there is also positivity, and positivity is something we can cultivate with some conscious effort.
The following are some tips on how to keep yourself in check and lessen the impact of the world’s traumas:
It’s important to practice healthy living in order to cope. It’s important to practice healthy living in general. Healthy eating, regular exercise, and consistent sleep are key factors in living as healthy a life as you can. Even in the face of traumatic news, try not to forego these basic rules for healthy living. Do not get lost in the bad news. Remember to take care of yourself first. Whenever you do have a chance to help someone else, wouldn’t you be in the best position to help if you yourself were as healthy as you could be?
Gratitude is a sure fire way to release negative emotions and shift your perspective from a place of pessimism to one of peace and happiness. Instead of focusing on everything negative, take some time to think about or write down all of the things for which you are grateful. You might be surprised at how many things you can think of!
Limit your exposure
Set aside time to read the news or use social media if you want to. Allow a certain time in the day, or a certain number of times in the day, that you’ll use to learn about what’s happening in the world. We can read a lot of information in a short amount of time, so you don’t actually need to stare at your phone all day. Instead, spend time working on yourself or make more time for friends and socializing. Spend more time involved in pleasurable activities, focus on yourself and your passion, and follow that instead of the sensational media.
- McCann, I. L., & Pearlman, L. A. (1990). Vicarious traumatization: A framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3(1), 131–149. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00975140
- Maidenberg, E. (2017). Coping With the Daily Barrage of Upsetting News. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/belief-and-the-brain/201712/coping-the-daily-barrage-upsetting-news [Accessed 3 Feb. 2020].