A horrendous truth about our world right now is that there will likely be another news story about a horrific mass shooting.
It’s not hard to feel personally affected by something so devastating, regardless of your own involvement. In fact, it may be out of your control: So-called vicarious trauma can be a biological response to horrifying events.
“It is absolutely a normal human response to be affected by tragedies like this,” Dan Reidenberg, a mental health expert and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, told HuffPost. “Our minds and our bodies respond as if we were there and, for some, that vicarious trauma is deeply impactful.”
How It Works
After widely covered events like mass shootings, vicarious trauma may cause anxiety or a general sense of helplessness even in those far from the actual tragedy. Watching and hearing about others in pain can also spark an empathetic response, because we all have some understanding of human suffering.
“The more we relate to a victim, the more intense the pain can be,” Reidenberg said. So if a victim was someone who was of your same religion or around your same age, for example, it can be even more difficult to process.
Vicarious trauma can lead to both physical and emotional symptoms, including stress, tension headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and restlessness, he said. Additionally, you may feel intense sadness and break into tears.
“Even if you’re far removed or living somewhere else, you can still feel traumatized.”
The unending news cycle can also contribute to these emotions. People are biased toward negativity ― in other words, although we say we like positive stories, many of us are more likely to tune in for horrific events. That’s true even 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 it’s stressful to watch people go through something like this,” David Kaplan, chief professional officer at the American Counseling Association, previously told HuffPost. “Even if you’re far removed or living somewhere else, you can still feel traumatized.”
How To Take Care Of Yourself
It’s important to look after your mental health after tragic events, Reidenberg said. Here are a few recommendations for self-care in the coming days:
Don’t keep your feelings bottled up.
Talk about what you’re thinking with someone you trust, Reidenberg advised. “When we are distressed by something, the more we talk about it, the better off we are going to be,” he said. “There’s only so much ‘yuck’ we can handle before it begins to come out in unhealthy ways ... so if you are feeling distress, say so.”
Keep to a normal routine.
“When tragic events like [mass shootings] in Las Vegas, Orlando, Colorado happen, we feel a loss of control in our lives and everything going on around us,” Reidenberg said. “The more we can stick to our normal routines, [the more] our brains and our bodies feel like we’re back in control.”
Try to follow the same sleeping and eating schedules. Go to work on time. Hang out with loved ones as you normally would.
Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.
That includes drinking alcohol, misusing drugs or any other risky behaviors that may put your health in jeopardy.
“Instead of relying on a ‘feel good’ drink, take a walk, listen to your favorite music, or get engulfed in a book that you’ve been putting off,” Reidenberg said.
Take a break from social media if you need to.
We live in a 24-hour information environment thanks to social media. Mental health experts often recommend signing off for a while if the news is becoming too much. Find ways to distract your brain for a little while, like reading a book (which comes with its own health benefits).
Help other people if you can.
Research shows that extending kindness can help you feel better as well. Look into ways you can help victims and their families directly, or volunteer for a cause you care about.
Reach out if you need extra support.
“If your emotions feel out of control and they don’t seem to calm down within a day or two, make sure you talk with someone and get their support,” Reidenberg stressed. “If it continues longer than that ― or you find you are isolating, withdrawing from others, you’re more irritable and unable to sleep or eat ― it’s time to talk to a health care professional.”
This article was originally published in response to the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017. It has been updated to reflect a broader reality: Its advice is applicable to any mass shooting (or traumatic news event).
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.