How to deal with secondhand trauma when terrible things happen in the world


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Photo: Getty Images/Izusek

Lately—okay, for the past several years—I’ve found myself emotionally armoring up before opening my news app in the morning. What’s it gonna be today: Another horrific mass shooting, like the one that took place in a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend? A new public policy taking rights away from immigrants, transgender people, or other already-marginalized members of society? More gut-wrenching stories of sexual assault, à la the one Christine Blasey Ford told in front of Congress last month? And those are just some recent examples that took place in this country. Have you heard about what’s going on in Yemen lately?

Yet even when I brace myself for the worst, I still often get weepy while scrolling through the headlines or my social feeds. (Today’s tear trigger: This illustration by artist Nikkolas Smith, memorializing the 11 victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.)

If you relate, know that you’re not alone in grieving tragic events in the news that don’t directly affect you. Psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW, for one, sees it all the time among her patients following tragic events in the world. “People report feeling a mix of emotions, but primarily a combination of anger, sadness, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness,” she says. “Another common thing my patients report is feeling extra emotionally raw; that their threshold for coping with seemingly ordinary challenges appears lower than usual.”

“We, as a culture, are experiencing a form of secondary trauma due to the bombardment of horrific events we are exposed to.” —Alison Stone, LCSW

Fear is also a common emotional response when disaster strikes, says Erica Spiegelman, a counselor for emotional well-being app Mindsail. “It’s common to feel unsafe when tragic events like the one in Pittsburgh occur,” she says. And a just-released report from the American Psychological Association backs her up, noting that the vast majority of Generation Z (75 percent) say mass shootings are a major source of stress. “This kind of event can happen to anyone, in any community, any demographic in our country. That is why we move toward the feeling of ‘Oh, wow, this could have been me.'” 

These feelings only intensify as the news agenda skews more and more WTF-worthy, Stone adds. “I honestly think we, as a culture, are experiencing a form of secondary trauma due to the bombardment of horrific events we are exposed to,” she says, noting that this also often affects therapists, journalists, humanitarians, and others who regularly bear witness to terrible events. “What is especially triggering about this type of macro-level negativity is the feeling of being powerless. These emotions can feel paralyzing, and hinder our ability to be optimistic, engaged, or proactive.” 

 “Sometimes people can experience survivor guilt. It’s common when someone survives or isn’t directly impacted when a tragedy occurs.”—Erica Spiegelman, counselor

As if that weren’t enough, there’s another layer to this secondary trauma: the fact that we often feel unworthy of experiencing it. We tell ourselves that we have no right to be upset when we aren’t personally involved, when our lives are going on as usual, when we should feel grateful for the privilege of being safe and healthy. “Sometimes people can experience survivor guilt,” says Spiegelman. “It’s common when someone survives or isn’t directly impacted when a tragedy occurs.”

But being physically removed from an occurrence doesn’t mean we should ignore our emotions around it. In fact, working through the feelings is vitally important, Stone says. “The first thing I do with my patients is normalize their emotional experience,” she says. “Often, we disregard or minimize our feelings. Sometimes it’s subconscious and can actually be an adaptive response in order for us to function effectively and get through the day without being emotionally overwhelmed. However, we still need to give ourselves permission to feel these things.”

She and Spiegelman both say connecting with others when you’re grieving is important, whether it’s a therapist, a friend, a family member, or a mentor you trust. Perhaps counterintuitively, even Facebook can even be helpful. “Social media can be used as a platform for connection and for reminding us that we are not experiencing things in isolation,” Stone says.

Still, do carefully filter the content you’re taking in when you’re feeling fragile. “Be very selective with what information you are receiving during times or grief or tragedy, because you are feeling things in a heightened way and don’t want to increase your anxiety,” Spiegelman says.

And if you’re especially moved by a certain piece of bad news, you’ll likely feel much better if you take some kind of action to help create positive change. “Get out there and change gun laws. Reach out to families affected and see how you can help. Write. Find organizations that support causes that resonate with you,” Spiegelman says.

One thing we can all do? Vote on November 6. That way, no matter how you feel when you turn on the news the next morning, you’ll have a little bit of peace of mind knowing you did your part to help.

If anger is your number-one emotion right now, here’s how to channel it into a superpower. Or make like musician Mary Lambert and turn your rage into art

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