07/23/2024

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One of the scary facts about our world right now is that there may be another news report about a horrific mass shooting.

It is not difficult to be affected by something so devastating, whether you are involved yourself or not. In fact, it may be beyond your control: the so-called vicarious trauma may be a biological response to the horrific event.

“It’s absolutely a normal human reaction to be affected by a tragedy like this,” Dan Redenberger, a mental health expert and executive director of Voices for Suicide Awareness Education, told The Huffington Post. “Our minds and bodies react as if we were there, and for some people, this vicarious trauma has far-reaching effects.”

How this works
In the wake of widely reported events such as mass shootings, vicarious trauma can lead to anxiety or a general sense of helplessness, even among those who are far removed from the actual tragedy. Seeing and hearing the pain of others can also inspire a compassionate response, because we all have some understanding of human suffering.

“The more we relate to the victim, the greater the pain,” Redenberger says. So, for example, if the victim is someone who shares your religious beliefs or is close to your age, it may be more difficult to deal with.

Vicarious trauma can cause physical and emotional symptoms, including stress, tension headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and irritability, he says. In addition, you may feel intense sadness and weep.

Even if you live far away or elsewhere, you may still feel traumatized.

The endless news cycle can also contribute to these emotions. People tend to be negative – in other words, even though we say we like positive stories, many of us are more likely to focus on horrific events. This is true, though it’s not necessarily good for us: Studies have found that exposure to negative news can take a toll on a person’s mental health over time.

“Research shows that watching people go through things like this is stressful,” David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, previously told The Huffington Post. “Even if you’re away or living somewhere else, you can still feel traumatized.”

How to take care of yourself
Reidenberg says it’s important to take care of your mental health in the wake of a tragic event. Here are some suggestions for self-care in the coming days.

Don’t keep your feelings to yourself.

Talk about your thoughts with someone you trust, Reidenberg suggests. “When we’re struggling with something, the more we talk about it, the better we get,” he says. “There’s only so much ‘yuck’ …… we can deal with before it starts coming out in an unhealthy way, so if you’re feeling distressed, talk about it.”

Keep a normal routine.

“When a tragic event like [the mass shooting] in Las Vegas, Orlando, Colorado, happens, we feel like life and everything that’s happening around us is out of control,” Redenberger says. “The more we can stick to our routine, the more our brain and body will feel like we’re back in control.”

Try to follow the same sleep and eating schedule. Get to work on time. Talk to your loved ones or exercise as usual.

Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.

This includes drinking alcohol, abusing drugs or any other risky behaviors that could put your health at risk.

“Instead of relying on ‘feel-good’ drinks, take a walk, listen to your favorite music or immerse yourself in the book you’ve been putting off,” Reidenberg says.

Take a break from social media if you need to.

Thanks to social media, we live in a 24-hour information environment. If the news becomes too much, mental health professionals often recommend taking a break from it. Find ways to distract your brain for a while, such as reading a book (which has health benefits).

If you can, help others.

Research shows that kindness can also help you feel better. Look for ways you can help victims and their families directly, or volunteer for a cause you care about.

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