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Trauma and the Internet

Repeated exposure to violent news reports, videos, and images on media platforms can trigger both direct and vicarious trauma responses.

Direct trauma describes our experience of witnessing death, sexual assault, or violent threats to the survival of ourselves and others.

Vicarious trauma describes our experience of empathic engagement with the victims of direct trauma, which can make us experience trauma symptoms even if the events we are witnessing do not threaten us directly. Symptoms can include preoccupation and intrusive thoughts, low mood and irritability, difficulties focusing or remembering things, fatigue, and heightened anxiety.

The wide availability of materials and ease of access can make it difficult to escape from traumatic events, even if they are taking a toll on our mental health.

Here are some things we can do to help ourselves:

  • Enhance our sense of safety: Trauma occurs in response to perceived threats to the safety of ourselves and others. Enhancing our sense of safety can help to reduce trauma symptoms. We can do so by deliberately adding items into our space that make us feel comforted and relaxed. These can include blankets, candles, photos, tokens, or anything that carries significance for us. We can also create personalised safe spaces where our minds can rest. This can be whole rooms or small corners. The key is to fill them with items that evoke warm feelings, keep them free of mess, and set boundaries around what you do in this space and who can be in that space with you. If it is difficult to create tangible safety, visualisations of a safe space can have a powerful effect of calming our minds too.
  • Strengthen our connections: Rewarding human connections are a key component in reducing the impact of trauma. It can deepen and strengthen our connections to share our vulnerabilities, and hold the space for our loved ones to share their vulnerabilities with us. This can help us to make each other feel truly heard and it can be powerful to have our feelings validated and understood. The warmth, security, stability, and safety provided in genuine human bonding are essential steps in the healing of trauma. If trauma symptoms become overwhelming or frequently present, it is also beneficial to seek professional mental health support.
  • Practice reflection: A significant challenge of trauma through media reports is that it often remains unacknowledged. We may experience symptoms but be unsure about what they mean or how they were triggered. When we notice thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviours that are out of the ordinary for us, it is crucial to pause and reflect on them. Not only can the acknowledgement relieve some of the symptoms, but it also gives us opportunity to limit our exposure to triggers. Reflection also enhances our self-awareness, which can improve our overall ability to tolerate distress and regulate our emotions. It can be helpful to keep a journal to jot down our thoughts and feelings too.
  • Engage in meaningful activities: It can give us a greater feeling of being in control when we participate in activities or events that are meaningful to us. This can take the form of championing a cause that is close to our heart, volunteering in the community, expressing ourselves through art, or supporting people around us. These actions can promote an intrinsic sense of joy as well as strengthening our sense of purpose. Traumatic incidents often seem senseless and unpredictable to us, significantly impairing our sense of control and not uncommonly making us reflect on the finiteness and meaning of life. Increasing our locus of control and giving ourselves a purpose to work toward can reduce trauma symptoms arising from witnessing such events.
  • Stay grounded: Traumatic events are typically encoded in our brains in ways that do not account for time and place. In other words, an associated trigger can induce a trauma reaction as if the event was happening to us in the here-and-now even if it occurred many years before or did not happen to us directly. Grounding ourselves in the present moment through mindfulness and calming breathing exercises can help to maintain our awareness of our immediate environment and feedback to the brain that in this moment we are physically safe. This can help the brain to disengage the trauma response. It is best to practice these regularly as it makes them easier to access when our anxiety or fight-flight system is triggered.
  • Take a break: Reducing our exposure to reports, videos, and images of traumatic events reduces the risk of vicarious trauma. Once our brain is engaged with the material, it is not uncommon for the brain to seek more information about the event. This can lead us down the proverbial rabbit hole, where we find more graphic and violent details, emotive first-hand accounts, conflicting media reports, and other similar incidents. Taking a break from social media and news reporting can help us to gain distance from the events shaking the globe and give our brains time to rest and recover.

We live in a world in which vicarious exposure to violent, traumatic events is almost a constant, putting as at heightened risk of trauma. However, we need not be passive powerless absorbents of such materials. Instead, we can protect our mental health by making active decisions on how much we allow into our lives, and how we handle resulting trauma symptoms in a healthy way.

If you have been experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma and wish to speak to a trauma specialist, please get in touch and book your appointment.

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