BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

You Might Be Suffering From ‘Vicarious Trauma’ From Watching the News

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    • Former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all charges in the death of George Floyd.
    • Floyd’s death last year sparked worldwide protests against police abuse of Black people.
    • With reports of mass shootings and ongoing police brutality surfacing on a near-daily basis, along with the stress of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, experts say you could be dealing with something known as “vicarious trauma.”

    For many, the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police officer found guilty on counts of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, resulted in a complex mixture of emotions.

    Jamil Stamschror-Lott, LICSW, a social worker and co-founder of Creative Kuponya, says his clients have been triggered by recent news coverage of the Chauvin trial. And even though the verdict was swift and decisive, the trauma continues.

    “It’s going to be a huge sense of relief,” he told Women’s Health, minutes after the verdict was read. “My stomach dropped like there’s an exhale of relief. I think there will be these moments of relief and a glimmer of hope. But those who are more informed know that there’s a great deal of work that needs to be done.”

    With reports of mass shootings and ongoing police brutality surfacing on a near-daily basis, all mixed in with continued headlines about the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

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    If you feel like you’re struggling, don’t brush it off. Experts say you could be dealing with something known as vicarious trauma.

    What is vicarious trauma?

    Vicarious trauma “develops as a result of traumatic material we have been exposed to, directly or indirectly, in our personal or professional lives,” says trauma expert Olga Phoenix.

    “Often it is ongoing exposure to traumatic events,” she says, citing things like news or social media coverage of police brutality, mass shootings and the death toll as a result of the pandemic. “Traumatic material then accumulates and begins to impact us cumulatively, like a snowball thrown on the top of the mountain that eventually becomes an avalanche.”

    What are the symptoms of vicarious trauma?

    Vicarious trauma can cause a “multitude of symptoms” that can impact you on a physical, psychological, behavioral, spiritual, cognitive and relational level, Phoenix says. Those include:

    • Physical: rapid pulse/breathing, headaches, impaired immune response, fatigue, depression
    • Psychological: feelings of powerlessness, numbness, anxiety, fearfulness, disillusionment
    • Behavioral: irritability, sleep and appetite changes, isolation from friends and family, substance abuse
    • Spiritual: loss of purpose, questioning the meaning of life, feeling useless
    • Cognitive: cynicism, pessimism, hopelessness, preoccupation with traumatic events and imagery
    • Relational: inability to connect, aloneness, lack of personal space, withdrawal, lack of interest in sex, lack of friends

      Who is at risk for it?

      People at the highest risk have some personal connection to trauma, says Stamschror-Lott. “You can have vicarious trauma because your trauma is being triggered from historical or personal experiences,” he explains. “For example, George Floyd could remind you of your late father and that can bring up unaddressed trauma or pain that you’ve only partially processed.”

      The actual triggers for the trauma can vary from person to person. “If I’m a Black male, the Chauvin trial feels different to me given the historical context to our society, whereas a white male may feel differently,” Stamschror-Lott says.

      How do I deal with vicarious trauma?

      If you feel like you’re struggling, there are a few things you can do to help yourself cope now and in the future.

      1. Limit how much news you take in. Staying informed is important, but doomscrolling rarely leads to anything good. “Constantly visualizing the event is likely to make symptoms worse,” Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast from iHeartRadio. Stamschror-Lott agrees. “Limit the news as much as possible. It’s too much by nature,” he says. TV news in particular can be triggering, he says, because it can show actual video of what happened.
      2. Practice deep breathing. Yes, you’ve heard it before. And yep, you’ve probably never tried it. You’d be shocked how much you can get out of taking a moment to focus on your breath. Saltz recommends doing “paced deep breathing” when you feel your anxiety levels shoot up. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a few counts, and then slowly let it out. You can also try this 4-7-8 breathing technique.
      3. Go for walk. Being active “helps stimulate other areas of your brain,” Stamschror-Lott says. Going out and witnessing what’s happening in front of you can also help get your mind off of what’s happening on the news, he says.
      4. Focus on your sleep. Mental health-boosting behaviors like getting a good night’s rest can help build your mental reserves for those moments when you may feel triggered. “Be proactive,” Stamschror-Lott says. “You cannot play defense all the time. If you’re playing defense the entire game, more than likely you’re losing and getting blown away. You have to start playing offense to take care of yourself.” (These sleep apps might make a difference.)
      5. Nurture your relationships. “One of the greatest contributors to our resilience and wellbeing is the quality of our relationships with ourselves, with our loved ones, and with our community,” Phoenix says. Having strong relationships with friends, family and support groups help give you a feeling of safety and belonging and, as Phoenix says, “act as a protective barrier against life stresses and vicarious trauma.” This can be as simple as having an outdoor meet-up with your friends, she says.
      6. Talk to a therapist. Stamschror-Lott says it’s crucial to speak with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma. “You’re experiencing two different pandemics,” he says. “You need someone who has insight when it comes to racialized trauma, because that’s a whole other element.”
      7. Remind yourself that you’re strong. Of course, you already know this on some level, but it never hurts to remind yourself that you’ve been through stressful and challenging situations in the past. In fact, Phoenix says that building resilience is one of the best things you can do to handle vicarious trauma, now and in the future. “Fostering resilience offers us not only a priceless opportunity to handle stress and adversity more effectively, but with commitment and practice, actually affords us a sustainable state of wellbeing, happiness and overall life satisfaction despite what was happening in the world or our lives,” she says.

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