We don't have to look very far to find trauma in our world. News headlines are brimming with stories of terrorism, tragedy, cruelty, and violence. Although these current events may take place thousands of miles away, targeting people we have never known, the research on collective trauma reveals that people exposed to the graphic images and stories that often accompany the news may experience the negative effects of violence and suffering comparable to those that are directly impacted by these acts.
Below I discuss some strategies to preserve mental health while processing some of the profoundly negative stories in the news.
· Avoid repeated exposure to graphic or violent images and stories – Research on collective trauma tells us that repeated media exposure to violence can be detrimental to our psychological health. In one study, researchers found that people who were exposed to repeated media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings reported higher levels of acute stress, compared to people who were physically present or near the bombings . If you find that you are being emotionally triggered by the images on the media, try switching to news radio for a while. Alternatively, if you find that you are greatly overwhelmed by the news altogether, give yourself permission to take a few days to fast from social media and news media consumption.
· Direct your attention and consumption mindfully – Although it may appear that the only way to view the news is through the lens of tragedy, it can be individually and culturally empowering to draw attention to the details of any story that highlight more of what we want and need to see: Prosocial behaviors (e.g., acts of compassion, good deeds, and community support). This may require a deeper look and more effort in researching to find these stories in the news, but highlighting these more uplifting stories serves to soothe and provide hope in times of desperation. Furthermore, by promoting and retelling stories through the lens of hope, we are flexing our individual power in shaping a broader cultural narrative.
· Find community – One of the few (if not, only) benefits of experiencing traumatic events is that people naturally tend to come together in times of need. These tragic events can serve to compel social connection. As such, when we are processing traumatic events, it is essential that we surround ourselves with supportive others. In fact, social support is linked with greater resilience and reduced risk of psychopathology in the aftermath of a traumatic event [2,3]. Even if you are not gathering with friends for the distinct purpose of processing trauma, simply spending time in the presence of a caring friend can enhance wellbeing. Hug a family member or call up a friend and find something to smile or laugh about. Don’t exacerbate the burden of trauma by facing it alone.
· Engage in religious or spiritual activities and groups – Participation in religious groups and commitment to spiritual beliefs has been shown to predict greater psychological well-being during times of collective trauma . When processing trauma, take time to connect with a religious or spiritual practice that you find uplifting and restorative.
· Channel feelings of anger and sadness constructively – In the past decade, psychology research has dismantled the myth that successful coping requires immediate verbal communication or expression of emotion in the aftermath of traumatic events. In fact, researchers examining public reactions in the aftermath of 9/11, found that people who immediately formed and expressed their reactions reported more negative health outcomes compared to those that did not express an immediate reaction . Based on these findings, it may be best to find some time to introspect or sit quietly before forming a reaction to traumatic events. Once you have given yourself the time and space to form a thoughtful reaction, see if you can translate negative emotions into constructive actions. Seek or create opportunities for meaningful civic engagement, perhaps call a creative gathering of neighborhood community members to come together to fundraise or create a gesture of sympathy for those the people that have been directly affected by the traumatic event.
· Refrain from thinking about the world as a divided place – The fear that is induced by these kinds of events make it incredibly tempting to quickly develop a mentality of “us vs. them.” Social psychologists find that human beings are very limited in their ability to accurately understand the situations and perspectives of other people. Ultimately, the ubiquity of these acts of violence is a symptom of cultures and societies that are wounded and unwell. Healing cannot take place without compassion and unity.
· Practice joy as an act of revolution – Terrorism is defined as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” The goal of terrorism is to threaten and frighten. In this way, the greatest act of revolution in times of terrorism and tragedy is to make our love of life and beauty louder than our fear. This is, of course, easier said than done in the face of trauma. However, by maintaining the simple behaviors that bring us joy (e.g., spending time outdoors, laughing, celebrating, falling in love, creating art), we become soldiers and revolutionaries in our own right.
Soon I will be posting information regarding my upcoming online yoga classes, available by subscription. The first among these classes will feature a heart-opening practice, which can be especially valuable in times of processing trauma or heavy emotional experiences. Stay tuned!
Thank you for reading and Namaste.
1. Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 93-98.
2. Guidances, C., & Watch, T. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry, 4(5), 35-40.
3. Southwick, S. M., Vythilingam, M., & Charney, D. S. (2005). The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress: implications for prevention and treatment*. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 1, 255-291.
4. McIntosh, D. N., Poulin, M. J., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2011). The distinct roles of spirituality and religiosity in physical and mental health after collective trauma: a national longitudinal study of responses to the 9/11 attacks. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 34(6), 497-507.
5. Seery, M. D., Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., Ence, W. A., & Chu, T. Q. (2008). Expressing thoughts and feelings following a collective trauma: Immediate responses to 9/11 predict negative outcomes in a national sample. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 76(4), 657.