Note: names of clients have been changed to honor their privacy.
In the summer of 2018, I presented a series of resilience-building workshops at a four-day community adult education event in northern Wisconsin. On the last day of the event a woman, Margaret, asked me if I would consider taking her on as a private long-distance phone client.
“I know now I need help,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this. I haven’t slept well since all of those kids were murdered this winter in that school down in Florida.”
Margaret then went on to describe how she and her husband had been “glued to the t.v. news” in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida in which 17 children were killed and 17 others injured by a former student of the school. “Something happened in me after that,” she said. “I didn’t think the world was so bad before that, but now I do. The world is falling apart – I worry about it all the time. I cry for those children. I worry that my grandchildren will be next.”
Without realizing it, Margaret had just described to me symptoms of grief and the experience of vicarious trauma.
Defining Vicarious Trauma
Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue caused by exposure to the traumatic stories and experiences of others*. Vicarious trauma can arise when we witness the fear, pain and terror that others have experienced either in person or after viewing such experiences through social media and news broadcasts, as happened with Margaret.
Vicarious trauma carries with it an element of grief regarding living in a world in which there is so much suffering that we can do little or nothing about.
Personalizing Others' Losses
Media-related vicarious trauma is primarily driven by two factors:
- Viewing disturbing or distressing images and stories about traumatic events you wouldn’t normally be exposed to. Once seen such images can be hard to un-see and process, negatively impacting your sense of personal safety, well-being and mental health. As distressing images and stories are repeatedly viewed they can increasingly feel like part of your own personal experience, causing feelings of loss and grief to arise.
- Identification with the victim(s). Identification happens when you feel a sense of connection to what was lost and how and by who. Losses stemming from violent crime, social or political injustice, the pandemic or a natural disaster might trigger a sense of shared loss framed as “if it could happen to them it could happen to me”. People at the highest risk for personalizing losses suffered by others are those with a historical or personal experience of trauma or a like trauma.
As an example: a work acquaintance, Dan, survived a flood that destroyed his home and washed away his life’s work as an artist, as well as all family keepsakes and financial documents. Even now, more than 20-years later, he tends to identify anyone who lives through a flood and its aftermath as “my people” especially if the flood occurs in the southern United State where he used to live. Over time, Dan has learned that while flood survivors may be his people, in order to maintain a sense of well-being he must avoid any media coverage having to do with floods and other natural disasters.
“I used to think watching what other people are going through was somehow supporting them,” said Dan. “And I thought it would make me feel luckier to have survived. But that’s not logical. I mean how is it helpful to anyone when I feel anxious and helpless watching someone else lose their home.? Once my mind goes to the negative place about what happened it can get stuck there - I start living the whole nightmare all over again. So I’ve learned not to look at visual reminders that take me back to that negative place. ”
Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma
Exposure to disturbing or distressing media images and stories can cause symptoms of vicarious trauma to arise such as:
- Feelings of frustration, sadness, fear, hopelessness, helplessness, worry, and other emotions often associated with grief and loss
- Increased anxiety regarding issues of personal safety
- Changes in appetite
- Trouble sleeping, concentrating and decision-making
- Disturbing thoughts and images stuck in the head
- Preoccupation with distressing or traumatic events and images
- Increased cynicism and pessimism about the state of the world
- Energy level changes; fatigue
- Changes in the way you relate to others/an inability to connect with others
- A sense of aloneness or isolation
- An increase in the use of alcohol or drugs
If you experience symptoms of vicarious trauma that persist and affect your daily functioning it is recommended that you seek help from a healthcare, mental health or grief support professional.
You Don't Have to Watch
Eliminating your exposure to media coverage of images and stories about traumatic events is the most effective way to fully alleviate vicarious trauma and grief.
But it isn’t always that simple.
Mitigating the Effects of Exposure to Distressing Images and Stories
In my work with Margaret, I discovered that she and her husband had recently retired; in retirement they had developed the habit of watching the news together every morning over a cup of coffee and then spending time discussing what they had seen and heard; every night prior to going to sleep, they once again watched the news together. Margaret enjoyed this one-on-one private time with her husband and made it clear she wasn’t willing to give it up.
“This is an activity we can do together - I don’t want to break that connection,” Margaret said.
And because her husband seemed to be unaffected by “scary” media images and stories - “he always sleeps like a baby!” - Margaret was worried her husband would be disappointed in her if she admitted how anxious and sad she became when vicariously witnessing other’s pain and loss.
Margaret stated her goal in our work together as “staying on top of the news – even the scary stuff” and “being able to do that without being so afraid and sad.” With that in mind we came-up with what we called a “media-viewing resilience plan” based on the three As of stress management: Awareness. Assessment. Action. Coming up with a viable plan took three months of experimentation and exploration; below I share the work we did together as thoughts for your consideration.
Margaret primarily got her news from television, rather than from other social media outlets. With that in mind, she began keeping a journal noting what televised stories and images negatively affected her and how: physically (insomnia, nervousness), emotionally (sadness, fear, helplessness, anxiety), mentally (intrusive spinning thoughts), and spiritually (a sense that God had abandoned his children). Journaling revealed that anything to do with war or children activated a sense of loss and symptoms of vicarious trauma. And it revealed that watching the news before bedtime was especially disturbing.
To deal with her physical, emotional, mental and spiritual symptoms, Margaret learned heart-focused breathing techniques and also increased her daily prayer practice to include saying a prayer of compassion for herself and others whenever stressful thoughts regarding the state of the world arose. Over a period of several months she found these things were helpful “but not enough.”
Margaret then decided to enlist her husband’s help in figuring out how to “stay current” while at the same time mitigating the effects of vicarious trauma. Together they experimented with when and how to view the news, beginning with watching televised news at 5 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. (just before bedtime). This greatly helped Margaret’s insomnia but again wasn’t the whole answer. Overtime Margaret began to realize that she found visual media sources the most stress inducing, and news from radio and print sources less so.
In the end, Margaret and her husband decided to go “old school," primarily getting their news from written sources on-line and by re-subscribing to newspaper home delivery. In the morning they listened to news radio and read the paper together. In the evening the couple watched televised news from 5 – 6 p.m., and when stories regarding war or harm to children were broadcast Margaret felt free to close her eyes and ears or leave the room. On Sundays, the couple decided on a ritual of a “media fast”, totally stepping away from the news to totally give their time to each other, friends, family, and to “God and enjoyment."
Acknowledging and Honoring Your Inner Experience
We only grieve the loss of that which is important to us. We grieve for the world because we care what happens to the world and its inhabitants – our fellow human beings.
Exploring your limits; learning how much news media you can tolerate, from what source and when, and being willing to make changes in self-care that both honor the truth of your inner experience and allow you to disengage from things over which you have no control can all be helpful in mitigating a sense of loss regarding living in a suffering world. As with other more personal losses, learning how to do this is the essence of grief healing. And it is the essence of coping with grief stemming from media coverage.
* As defined by the American Counseling Association