Mental Health During Times of Social Crisis: Media Exposure and Vicarious Trauma

In recent months (from March 2020) there has been a lot of social upheaval and unrest, resulting in distressing news reports and videos circulating on social media. The police brutality in America, followed by protests and counter protests across the world are likely to have provoked feelings of anger, sadness, exhaustion, confusion and frustration, especially considering these events are taking place during a global pandemic. It is likely that constant exposure to the news and to social media updates will impact on our emotional wellbeing. Although these emotional responses are valid reactions to the tragedies and crises happening across the world, it is important to look after our mental health during events like this, so as not to become overwhelmed or vicariously traumatised.

Vicarious trauma, also known as ‘compassion fatigue’, happens when people hear traumatic stories and are impacted by the pain or fear that others felt. It occurs when these feelings build up and begin to have a negative effect on your quality of life, such as sleep or appetite problems, feelings of excessive fear, anxiety or hopelessness about the future, concentration problems and increased ‘numbing’ behaviours, such as substance use or overeating.

It can be very difficult to avoid hearing about current events; however, it is important that you are aware of how you interact with media relating to traumatic events. The first step is to set a limit with yourself about how often you consume media. It can be very easy to mindlessly scroll through news articles; however, this can lead to excessive feelings of anxiety or sadness. Consider allowing yourself a scheduled ‘check in’ time for news events and avoid checking sources which you know may cause you to become angry or upset, (eg. scrolling through comments on Facebook or Instagram posts). This is an important step for future self-care, as unfortunately it is likely that tragic or traumatic events will occur in the future, and being able to put boundaries in place about how you interact with that information will be crucial in looking after your emotional wellbeing.

The next thing to do is to acknowledge the feelings that you do have, and to remember that these emotions are valid. Just because the trauma did not happen to us first-hand, does not mean that it is not impactful. Talking about these feelings with people that you trust is very important. If you do not feel comfortable talking to your friends or family about the impact these events are having on you, reaching out to a therapist may be helpful. A therapist is there to listen in a supportive, empathic, and non-judgemental manner, and to offer you a safe space to explore these feelings.

The final thing to remember is to continue living your life. Although it may be difficult to think of yourself carrying on as normal while other people are suffering, as the saying goes ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. If you want to be helpful or supportive to people experiencing crises, you must look after yourself first so that you do not burn out. Try to set boundaries with yourself around media consumption and reach out and talk to others when you need to. Remember; all emotional reactions are valid, we are living in times of great uncertainty and social unrest, and that is bound to take its toll.

If you would like to book an appointment with Dr Meg Ryan to discuss your emotional wellbeing or any other issues you may have, please contact her on 086 338 9614.



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