Do you feel tired, unable to focus on your work and get seemingly random headaches or stomach pain?
This could be a sign of a number of things. Yet, with today’s instant access to constant news updates and social media discussions, tragedies, like the Parkland shooting, can affect your health – even if you were not directly impacted by the event.
“There is something called vicarious trauma,” says Dr. Heidi Allespach, a clinical psychologist in family medicine, internal medicine, and surgery at the University of Miami Health System. “It often affects first responders, social workers and health care providers, but studies have shown that because of mass media and 24-hour news coverage, trauma-related symptoms can spread even to individuals who were not directly affected by the event.”
For example, researchers conducted a study following the Boston Marathon bombings to measure the effects of media coverage following the 2013 tragedy. They found that “repeatedly engaging with trauma-related media content for several hours daily shortly after collective trauma may prolong acute stress experiences and promote substantial stress-related symptomatology.”
Signs of traumatic stress
According to Dr. Allespach, it is normal and common to feel distressed when a traumatic event occurs. “But, as someone reading a news story or other media coverage, the initial shock will lessen with time and usually does not severely impact your normal level of functioning,” she says.
Signs of vicarious trauma include experiencing:
- Intrusive thoughts of the event that interrupt your daily activities
- Increased irritability or anger
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Hopelessness or a lack of control over your future
- Physical symptoms like stomach pain, headaches or back pain
Limit media exposure
If you are experiencing these symptoms, the first thing Dr. Allespach recommends is to slow your news consumption and social media activity.
“Our belief in a ‘just world’ can be smashed by terrorist events and mass shootings and, thus, we may feel extremely vulnerable and anxious,” Dr. Allespach explains. “We voraciously follow the story in an attempt to find the answer as to why such a horrific thing can happen.”
By identifying the reason why, she says, we feel as if we have regained “control” over our world and we feel safer and less distressed. “But, oftentimes satisfactory answers to senseless events are not forthcoming,” she says. “Hence, exposing ourselves to the event over and over through the media causes us to stay in a perpetual state of distress.”
Instead of repeatedly immersing yourself in the information surrounding a traumatic event, Dr Allespach suggests “doing the opposite: Turn off the TV or computer and focus on what is good in the world and in your life.”
“The media generally offers up a very dark and distorted view of the world,” she says. “But there are so many good people out there doing wonderful things: it’s important to switch our focus to the altruism and kindness which happens around us every single day.”
Empower yourself by getting involved in your community. “Some evidence shows that after a mass shooting, getting involved with like-minded people in community efforts to lobby for positive change can be even more beneficial in terms of reducing distress than initially seeing a crisis counselor,” says Dr. Allespach.
Do things that bring you joy, hang out with positive people in your life, get enough sleep, have a smart phone/tablet shut-off time and eat healthy.
Write it out in a journal. “Journaling about your feelings and fears after hearing about a distressing event but intentionally ending that entry on a positive, hopeful note may be quite helpful in restoring a sense of calm and control too,” says Dr. Allespach.
If you are concerned you might be experiencing vicarious trauma/traumatic stress, it is recommended that you consult a licensed psychologist. Together, you can develop an individualized plan for effectively reducing your distress.