By: Kristin Trammell (Therapist/Training Specialist)
Today, war and large tragedies may be happening over 1,000 miles away, but with the common use of cell phones and social media the war and other tragedies’ impact can feel much closer to home. Many times, people with social media or access to live-feed news sources can constantly seek updates or monitor various situations. This compulsive behavior of constantly checking and monitoring is called doomscrolling. Doomscrolling initially can serve as a coping mechanism, because having constant information can help people feel reassured or feel a sense of control in uncertain situations (Liu, 2022). Although doomscrolling is a coping mechanism, it can quickly become unhealthy and become a barrier to mental health due to the access it provides to images, content, sounds, and stories regarding violence, war, and tragedy. It is not uncommon now to see videos and hear stories of families being separated, of bombings/shelling, and of people being critically injured, dying, or dead. Unfortunately, these events occur often throughout the world, but have become more prevalently witnessed due to the usage of cell phones and social media.
Witnessing war, violence, and other tragedies through secondary sources, such as television and social media, can lead to symptoms relating to vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma, otherwise known as secondary trauma, has historically been discussed as what people in helping professions can experience when serving others with first-hand trauma, but with the high intake of online content regarding trauma events, others can experience vicarious trauma, as well (Vicarious Trauma, 2022). Vicarious trauma means that people who witness or hear about the trauma secondhand can experience traumatic effects or stress responses. It is important to note that children, adolescents, and adults all can experience vicarious trauma, but symptoms may present differently according to age.
Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma:
Children and adolescents can often experience stomach aches or headaches, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, increased emotional reactions, such as tantrums or feeling more irritable or sad, as well as experiencing changes in interests or avoidance of others (Torres, 2022).
Adults can often experience a change in worldview, distressing intrusive thoughts or images, increased feelings of sadness, irritability, or hopelessness/helplessness, difficulty at work and with relationships, as well as changes in sleep patterns and appetite (Torres, 2022).
Coping with Vicarious Trauma:
For children and adolescents with vicarious trauma, we want to limit access to content that continuously presents war, violence, and tragic events. We then want to be open and curious in helping them understand events and their related reactions. It is okay to ask questions regarding if something is upsetting them. We can then validate and normalize the child’s feelings regarding traumatic events. We let them know that it is okay to be scared, concerned, sad, or angry and assure them that they can talk with a safe adult whenever they have questions. We can also search for ways to increase hope and resiliency with the child by exploring ways they can help others, no matter how small. It is also important to discuss how the child is currently safe, if they are concerned about their own safety.
For adults with vicarious trauma, it is important to also limit access to content that continuously presents war, violence, and tragic events. For peers who are experiencing vicarious trauma, we want to provide support to them by offering a judgement free, listening ear. We want to validate their feelings and ask if there is a way we can help them through this time. We can offer a snack, a break, or a change in schedule, if needed. If we are the ones experiencing vicarious trauma, we want to step back and remind ourselves that it is okay to feel confused or upset and it is okay if we need time to take a break to gather ourselves. It is okay to ask for help from safe individuals. It is also helpful to remember that the basics go a long way; ensuring that we eat well, drink water, and practice healthy sleeping habits.
If you, a friend, coworker, or a loved one are experiencing distress that hinders day to day tasks or are having difficulty managing strong emotions and intrusive thoughts, seeking professional help through counseling, peer support, or skills building is recommended and can be beneficial in the path to healing. If you would like further information in seeking help, go to https://gahope.org/ or call 706-279-0405.
Joyful Heart Foundation. (2022). Vicarious trauma. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/learn/vicarious-trauma
Liu, J. (2022, March 3). How to stop Doomscrolling when tragedy strikes-and what you could focus on instead. CNBC. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/02/25/how-to-stop-doomscrolling-when-tragedy-strikeswhat-you-could-focus-on-instead.html
Torres, C. (n.d.). Psychologist offers mental health advice for kids, adults amid Ukraine-russia war. https://www.wbay.com. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.wbay.com/2022/03/21/psychologist-offers-mental-health-advice-kids-adults-amid-ukraine-russia-war/