Coping with Collective Trauma and Grief

In today’s rapidly changing world, the stressors we face seem to multiply by the day. From terrorism, war, ethnic and religious tension and violence, mass shootings, political polarization and governmental dysfunction, to global pandemics, economic uncertainty, and climate change, we are bombarded daily with what feels like a never-ending assault on our nervous systems, and uncertainty has become a constant companion. Parents, children, and young adults may feel unsafe in their community, school or workplace, and feelings of chronic stress and anxiety have sadly become the norm.

Amid this barrage amplified by 24-hour news cycles and social media, it is becoming increasingly common for many of us to experience a form of trauma known as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma, often referred to as secondary traumatic stress, is the emotional toll taken on individuals who bear witness to the suffering and trauma of others, either in person or through media exposure. This can manifest in a range of symptoms, including feelings of helplessness, anxiety, depression, and a sense of emotional detachment from the world.

In moments of suffering and uncertainty, it is crucial to double-down on self-care so that we can increase resiliency, both for ourselves and our loved ones. Although it can feel counterintuitive to take care of ourselves when others are also struggling or in need, we have also heard similar emergency guidelines when on a plane: “we must put on our own oxygen masks, before helping someone else.” We can’t truly be there for others, unless we are also taking care of ourselves first.


Below are some “oxygen masks” that you can use to take care of yourself during difficult times:

1. Self-Care: Self-care is crucial for all of us, but especially when experiencing vicarious trauma or chronic stress. Prioritize getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in regular exercise. These simple practices can make a significant difference in your ability to cope with stress and be your best self to support your loved ones.


2. Stay Informed but Not Obsessed: While it’s important to stay informed about current events, staying glued to the 24-hour news cycle can keep your nervous system in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight survival mode. Try setting healthy limits, like only checking headlines once or twice per day, instead of “doomscrolling” for hours on social media.


3. Maintain a Routine: Create a daily routine that includes time for work, relaxation, and self-care. Routine and structure can provide predictability and a sense of normalcy in turbulent times.


4. Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness and meditation techniques can help you stay grounded in the present moment, reducing anxiety and stress. If meditation is new for you, there are a multitude of smartphone apps and free guided meditations online. Try to institute a regular routine of mindful meditation at a set time each day (first thing in the morning is great), even if you can only spare five or ten minutes to start. Regular practice can help you build resilience to better cope with chronic stress and vicarious trauma.


5. Connect with Loved Ones: Stay connected with friends, family, and community–ideally in person when possible. Social support is essential in times of stress, and it can provide a sense of security and belonging. Physical touch, in the form of a hug or a handshake, releases oxytocin in the body, which can help you to feel a greater sense of safety and wellbeing.


6. Prioritize Fun and Relaxation Activities: Hobbies and activities that you enjoy can serve as a necessary distraction from the constant stressors in the world. Whether it’s painting, playing with your children or pets, listening to music, or simply going for a walk in nature, find something that brings you joy and relaxation, and commit to scheduling these activities into your regular weekly agenda.


7. Volunteer and Help Others: Focusing on helping others can counterbalance the emotional toll of vicarious trauma. Engaging in acts of kindness and altruism can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment.


Lastly, if you find that vicarious trauma or chronic stress is significantly impacting your daily life, consider seeking professional help from a therapist. Straight Up Treatment specializes in helping teens, adults, and families cope with challenges related to anxiety and chronic stress, using a variety of evidence-based treatments and a holistic approach to healing. Reach out today to get connected with one of our specialists.

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