Carol was crying. Really crying as she watched the screen.
She thought about the people wading in the waist-high water. She felt physically ill when she heard the newscasters mention the people trapped, the homes lost and how things would never be the same.
Carol wasn’t there. But she knew people in the area.
She was safe. But so many people who were just like her yesterday were devastated today.
Can you relate to Carol?
Do you feel sometimes that the 24-hour news cycle keeps us psychologically tied to the trauma of those suffering disasters near and far?
Collectively, we can literally see the entirety of a natural disaster play out on a screen somewhere. From earthquakes in Mexico, tornadoes in Oklahoma, floods in Texas, and hurricanes in Florida, we have the opportunity to engage the suffering of others. And some of us truly do suffer… right along with those directly impacted.
Because trauma can happen to anyone, even when exposure is second-hand.
Understanding Secondary Trauma
Also referred to as vicarious trauma, this experience is defined as indirect exposure to traumatic events.
Some people worry that they don’t have a right to be traumatized this way. They see people actively trying to manage the worst days of their lives and feel guilty or upset with themselves for feeling so affected.
If you worry this way, don’t beat yourself up. Exposure to disaster happens in many forms, and the emotional response simply is what it is. There is no need to place a value judgment on it. Instead, take the time to understand what’s happening emotionally. That insight can help you manage your feelings and gain some perspective.
You may be experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress
• Secondary Traumatic Stress or (STS) is a response to a traumatic event by someone who witnessed it or was exposed to it indirectly.
• Symptoms of STS are very similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms and those of other trauma disorders.
• STS is usually most commonly exhibited by people who are exposed to disastrous situations professionally (e.g., first responders, law enforcement, EMTs, counselors, nurses, etc.)
• Friends, family, or other loved ones of those who endure disaster can also experience acute STS.
• Studies show an increasing amount of STS among whole populations, due largely in part, to the constant, repetitious, and far-reaching uncensored scope of media coverage in real time.
In truth, whether you volunteer with recovery efforts, live near a disaster-affected area, know someone battling through the disaster, or simply watch the rolling coverage hour after hour, secondary trauma is entirely possible. It is potentially debilitating and worthy of attention and appropriate treatment.
Symptoms of Secondary Trauma
Are you unsure if you or someone you know is dealing with secondary trauma? Be aware that the intensity of your emotional distress can vary. However, if you notice that symptoms don’t fade after a couple of weeks, reach out to a therapist for help.
• intrusive, random, or repetitive thoughts
• chronic sleeplessness or fatigue
• hypervigilance or emotional arousal
• intense or prolonged bouts of sadness, hopelessness, or powerlessness
• a desire to minimize or shut out disaster reminders
• inconsistent or poor concentration
• emotional exhaustion
• deepening anger, fear or cynicism
• misplaced guilt or shame
• lack of mental clarity
• a longing for calm and simplicity
• withdrawal or detachment
• new or recurrence of past illnesses or pain
• absenteeism from school or work
Natural disasters are frightening, in no small part, due to the helplessness we feel when we experience or witness an act of God. Humans are all connected in that sense. However, rather than continuing to suffer and ruminate on the tragedy, healing and your ability to cope can be bolstered by practicing key skills and calling on crucial relationships.
Coping with Secondary Trauma
Pay attention to your emotions, bodily responses and automatic reactions to disaster news from primary victims and the media. Are you experiencing irritability, depressive thoughts, sleep disturbance or poor concentration?
• Accept and Validate
Share what you feel with safe people or a therapist. Honor your feelings and pain. Allow a hurting person to share with you. Accept your emotions and listen compassionately to those who struggle too.
• Relieve Stress
Find activities to help take your mind off the calamity. Avoid drugs and excessive use of alcohol as soothing activities. They can create additional problems.
• Maintain Routines
Rest, eat well, exercise. Take a break from media coverage
• Spend time with family and friends
Stay in touch with loved ones, especially those unaffected by the natural disaster. If you’ve been dealing with family members directly impacted, this will help maintain balance and a sense of normalcy.
Healing comes through sharing. Pour your emotions out to a loved one, a therapist or your journal. Just make an effort to express what you’re experiencing.
• Take time
Trauma of any sort requires a healing process. You needn’t rush things or pretend you’re over it before you are. Fully process your experience. Navigate your emotional state honestly and patiently.
Refuse to take your community for granted. Reach out, appreciate and get to know your neighbors. Social connection and a sense of belonging can be very soothing.
• Seek professional help
Finally, secondary trauma may play out for some time. As a result, there are periods when processing difficult emotions deserve professional attention. Might you or someone you know benefit from experienced guidance?
Take the First Step…
If you’re ready to take a step toward recovery from trauma, I would like to help. I can help you move through your recovery quickly so you can get back to living your life. Please contact me by phone or by email so we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Linda K. Laffey, MFT