The recent events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas have left many feeling some kinda way. While some of us don’t know exactly what we are feeling, others can readily identify the one or various emotions they might be experiencing; and some may be experiencing emotions intensely. As if the events of the past few days have not been tragic enough, we have been unable to escape the reminders, and are left to relive the first moment we heard or saw news of these events. Our brains are being constantly bombarded with print and streaming images of civilians and police officers being assaulted, shot at and dying with not a free moment to process the apparent dichotomies. For the record, my goal here is not to use this as a forum to air my personal beliefs; but rather, to use this opportunity to help us deal with what I have termed trauma by media.
Trauma by media is a cluster of symptoms experienced as a result of secondhand exposure, (i.e. indirect exposure), to a life threatening or fatal event via print or broadcast media. Symptoms can range from anger and rage, from sadness to frank depression, from worry to anxiety and fear, to nightmares and more. And these can lead to sleep difficulties, the inability to focus one’s attention on matters unrelated to the event, engaging in maladaptive behaviors to express one’s frustration and upset or numb one’s emotions, and can impact the ability to function effectively in one’s day-to-day life.
Make no mistake, we’ve been here before. But we’ve not implemented the lessons learned. As a nation we became vicariously traumatized during 9-11 due to the constant media coverage of the day’s events. Notwithstanding the impact of the tragic loss of lives and the terror that the nation felt, seeing and hearing the stories over and over again solidified the horror in the minds of many and crystallized the trauma in our brains. The graphic images of people jumping of out windows are forever etched in my mind; like they are for many of you. As a result, there are many who can no longer see images or even talk about 9-11 without it evoking strong visceral reactions — and we were not even there nor did we suffer a personal loss.
Unfortunately, given the state of world affairs, there is no lack of newsworthy stories, and the future is ripe for horrific and mind-boggling tragedies to report on. In light of this, how do you keep yourself reasonably well-adjusted, able to focus, and not given to the emotional ups and downs that these tragic times and unfortunate events can cause?
- Tune out: I think this is the single most helpful piece of advice that I can offer. Turn off the TV and/or radio, disconnect from all social media, and just take a break from the non-stop coverage of the event. Give your mind a break from the constant bombardment of images and information, and give your brain the opportunity to make sense of the confusion.
- Don’t isolate: Isolation, while needed at times to refuel and recharge, is never a good idea when one is in a state of emotional crisis. So resist the urge to isolate yourself. Talking about the event with others is a way to process what has happened in a healthy way. But, be careful about engaging in very heated discussions or debates. The goal here is to move towards a state of emotional acceptance and to stabilize oneself from the state of mental disequilibrium; NOT to get oneself so riled up that you are worse off than before! Being around others and doing something social can also serve to distract you from all that is going on.
- Resist the urge to numb: Your mind will want to forget. You will want to be out of the uncomfortable emotional place that you are in. Resist the urge to numb your feelings using alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, or any other extreme behavior. This will only cause other difficulties down the road.
- Get involved: Doing something helpful and in assistance to a person or group directly affected, or picking up their cause, can be cathartic and emotionally healing for all involved. For example, many people volunteered their time, energy, and/or money after 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, and other national tragedies. Organizing a food drive, a clothing drive, a blood drive, etc. were ways that people channeled their grief into compassion and action.
- Be part of the solution: In the present case, there are many adaptive ways to channel the anger and frustration that many are feeling. Mobilize or take part in peaceful protests, write or blog how you feel, lobby or start a petition, and be a part of the process of political change.
- Tap into your spirituality: People oftentimes find a sense of peace, solace, and acceptance by tapping into their faith. Be it through prayer, meditation, consultation with spiritually like-minded people or with your religious leader, this can be a very healthy way to make emotional peace with tragedy. While we might never know the answer to the question of ‘why,’ the ‘how’ to move forward positively may become readily apparent.
- Seek counseling: If symptoms persist for more than a week or so without improvement or your functioning worsens with time, consider seeking mental health counseling. For some who have histories of trauma from childhood, military combat, or other life events, these types of nationwide wounds can resurface unresolved issues. Your health insurer’s website, your state department of mental health, or your state board of psychology would be initial places to look for a licensed practitioner in your area. Your primary care physician, and even friends might be other places to start. The point here is to stay ahead of the curve, and find professional assistance as soon as possible.
Nicole M. Alford, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Life-ologist, lecturer and educator in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.