Last week a horrific act of violence played out in front of a shocked nation when a scorned journalist opened fire on his former colleagues on live TV. He wanted to exact revenge, and he wanted the entire planet to bear witness. His exploits were covered on TV, on the radio, through live tweets and the Facebook feed published by the killer himself, and were even featured on the cover of the NY Daily News.
Consumers were quick to react with criticism and disgust to the over-the-top reporting and the prominent auto-play (auto-play is when a video feed begins playing automatically as you scroll over it on Social Media like Facebook or Twitter) of the event on social media. An NPR Senior Editor said, in defense of the station's coverage, “we played the gun shots because we thought they were of essence to the story our listeners needed to hear.” This, I can understand to a degree, but for highly empathic listeners, or for those dealing with emotional trauma related to gun violence, it may be deeply affecting to listen to recordings of a violent crime, including the gunshots. It's a fine line. When we are exposed to the details, sights, and sounds of the horror, we can be moved to action, sparking movements like Black Lives Matter, which was born in the wake of many wrongful deaths that were caught on tape, notably through police interactions. Eric Garner's labored voice whispering "I can't breathe" over and over is deeply affecting, inspiring feelings, action, and as a result, social change. The media, however, in many regards, perpetuates the violence and horror for the publicity and this exacts a toll.
Over the next couple of months, we will all tune into the media reports on the anniversaries of disasters most of us have lived through. It's that time of year. We will watch images of the Twin Towers burning on 9/11, look into the faces of the anguished families without food or water camped out in the Superdome during and after Katrina, and watch video footage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York and the New Jersey Shore.
Although Fall is a beautiful season and evokes happy memories of pumpkin patches and hay rides, the NYC marathon, caramel apples, and changing leaves, it is also a season of past trauma for many. Anniversaries of traumatic events can trigger the same responses we experienced while living through disturbing events when they happened.
You might not want to hear the gunshots, and in fact, you may quickly close your browser or change the channel. You might not need to see the burning towers to be reminded of the horror of 9/11; not because you are weak, but because you are deeply connected. This doesn’t make you “weak-minded,” rather, it makes you either empathic or brave, depending on whether you experienced these events directly or not. To have empathy, to choose to put yourself in someone’s shoes, shows strength and courage. To have lived through it shows resilience and bravery.
The anniversaries of these events may serve as triggers. Triggers can be sounds, sights, smells, places, objects, times of year, and many other stimuli that cause upset feelings, emotional reactions, or problematic behaviors. If you lived through a traumatic event, you are likely have some triggers related to your time of duress. There are varying degrees of distress and pain that manifest these triggers cause for us, and like most experiences, they can be placed on a continuum. The key is to find balance, and know how to protect yourself. If you are a highly empathic person, or have experienced emotional trauma, you have to walk that fine line and look inward, to learn how to stop the memories from these events from affecting the quality of your life.
Here’s how to manage your emotional distress and reactions when triggered by media, when witnessing violence, or when reliving traumatic events that have been re-triggered.
Become Aware. First recognize the symptoms in yourself and others around you. This will likely start with feeling it in your body, through your heart rate and by experiencing tension, followed by your emotions, such as heightened feelings of worry, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, sadness, or helplessness. You may become overly emotional, reactionary, have nightmares, or, experience big swings in mood. You may lose sleep or feel aches and pains in your body and develop headaches. When this happens just recognize it and acknowledge that it is there. Recognize the situations or people that are triggering the response in you. If you are highly empathic, you may notice your mood shifting easily just by people around you, experience overwhelming feelings, numb yourself with alcohol or drugs and feel others' physical pain and suffering deeply.
Discern. Social psychology studies indicate a degree of choice when it comes to empathy but this doesn’t mean decent people choose to be empathic while unsympathetic people do not. Rather, the question is, what situations are we are empathic towards, and to what degree? I believe “rationing” empathy protects us, especially highly sensitive people. We don’t have the capacity to take on empathy for every hardship and injustice in the world. If you are feeling the indicators of emotional trauma or are deeply empathic, then you will need to learn how to turn it off in some situations so that you can avoid being overwhelmed with stressful negative emotions that effect your well-being. Recognize the way it is unhelpful to you and probably people around you too. For the empaths- discern what you will center on, and let the other triggering situations go. Just because you are empathic, or re-experience a trauma you lived through, doesn’t mean you are forever destined to suffer.
Self-care. Remember that it’s your empathy, or your experience, that causes these feelings to well up. You have grit and you have a story to tell. If you did not directly experience it, then you had courage to live it even when you were not there. Be sure to keep up regular sleep, exercise and diet/nutrition routines and to be kind, but also gently rational with yourself. For those with emotional trauma, the bad memories are from situations that occurred in the past and are not occurring in the here and now. You are in a different place and have some degree of control over what happens from here. If you are the empath, then remember that your heightened emotional state is not only not serving you, but limits your ability to be present for people the way you want to be. Think of it as an unhealthy co-dependence that occurs in deeply feeling people.
Coping with Trauma and Deep Empathy
Internal Coping. Know how to self-sooth yourself when you find yourself in an agitated state. This can be accomplished quite surreptitiously, without alerting people you might be around. Some ideas for internal coping include:
- Recite Affirmations
- Think about:
- People and things you are grateful for in your life.
- Things that are within your control
- What is a beautiful or poetic outcome? Has anything positive come out of this traumatic event? Has it built up your strength, courage, or resiliency?
- Be Present. To do this-Relax. Focus. Bring your mind back to present when it wanders. Focus on the here and now. Detach your mind from everything else. Center your mind on your body.
Honor what you need. Tune out. Skim over media reports on events, try not to watch or listen to the local news channels, and turn off the auto-play functions on your social media.
Tell your story. Story telling is powerful and healing. Living in New York, it’s a constant topic of conversation: where were you during 9/11? Where were you during Hurricane Sandy? Did you lose your power? It is a way to connect, emotionally and spiritually, and to heal. Never Forget! Jersey Strong! We lived through something tragic and survived it together. Connecting to others and sharing our common experiences facilitates the healing process.
Listen to others' stories. Ask open questions and really listen. Listen before interjecting to share your story. Being present for others and lending an ear can be very healing for people experiencing emotional trauma and take the focus off the personal pain.
Take action. Do your small part to effect change. This may help you feel a sense of control over something you otherwise feel powerless to change. Examples are visiting the 9/11 Memorial, donating to funds to rebuild something, volunteering time, attend a rally or protest, writing your policy makers, or just staying informed and raising awareness by speaking your mind and sharing your viewpoint!
Find ways to satisfy other parts of your soul. Consider –what makes me happy and helps me disconnect from the stress of this event? How can I serve myself in this moment to heal? How can I be in a better position to help others? Next, plan a way to make it happen. Maybe it is searching local music venues to see what shows there are to see, or going to a dance class at a gym or dance studio. Look for a free concert, a public art exhibit, or go on a walk through the park. Immerse yourself in a new experience; if you decide to walk the Jackie Onassis Reservoir in Central Park as you do regularly, then aim to observe something different, listen to different playlist, or if you always listen to music, leave your iPhone at home and pay attention to sights and sounds around you. Vow to experience something in your daily routine differently.
If you find your response to a traumatic event witnessed or experienced is continually out of character for you and interfering with your work, activities outside of work, and/or relationships, then you should seek professional help. A licensed therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) methods and specializing in anxiety and trauma would help walk you through the steps towards awareness, healing, coping and recovery.
Additional Resources to help in coping with disasters or anniversaries:
- Remembering Katrina
- SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline
- Helping Children in Trauma
- Anniversaries and Trigger Events
Kerrie Thompson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private psychotherapy practice Downtown New York City. For more information, a complimentary consultation, or to make a referral, please click here.