When we hear or read about distressing situations in the news, even if they don’t directly involve us, we often feel a strong connection as if it’s happening to someone we know or to ourselves.
This is common and completely normal, said Mahima Didwania, a clinical psychologist who has worked with victims of trauma for more than a decade.
“While some situations may not happen to us directly, we still feel affected because humans are more connected than we think,” she said.
Didwania described this as vicarious trauma, where we feel the effects of a traumatic event – such as fear, sadness, and rage – from a distance. This occurs when we witness the event on television, read about it in the news, or follow its unfolding on social media.
Such situations can include the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, a mass public shooting in the United States, the removal of Afghan refugees from Pakistan, the teen who killed his schoolmate in Singapore or even the talk about the cost of living.
EFFECTS OF VICARIOUS TRAUMA
The effects of vicarious trauma are aplenty and must be taken seriously, said Didwania. “While you’re not the direct victim, you may feel the suffering because it still happened, even if it’s to a stranger.”
One of the most common effects of vicarious trauma is increased stress.
Counselling psychologist Padma Jairam added that many of us adhere to the “just-world hypothesis” or “just-world fallacy.” This belief suggests that we see the world as inherently fair, where good things exclusively occur to good people, and bad things happen only to those perceived as bad.
“So when we see innocents being killed or oppressed, the world feels imbalanced and we feel a strong sense of helplessness or despair,” Jairam said.
On top of these emotions, there may also be guilt.
“Some individuals may feel guilty, wondering why the traumatic event is happening to others and not to us,” Didwania explained.
“We may also experience guilt for feeling grief and stress even though we are not directly affected,” she added. “There’s a tendency to question and blame ourselves, thinking that we are making the situation about us when it’s actually about them.”
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HOW TO STAY INFORMED WHILE TAKING CARE OF OURSELVES
While it is important to stay abreast of the news, it’s also important to make sure you don’t “spiral into a state of despair and helplessness”, Jairam said.
We must also be present for your responsibilities and your family and friends who are with you, Didwania added. “It’s not about dismissing the plight of others, it’s about ensuring you are as well as possible so you can keep going.”
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3. BE SELECTIVE ABOUT THE PLATFORMS YOU FOLLOW
Didwania highlighted that as there’s a prevalence of misinformation and sensationalism in today’s news, it is especially crucial to be selective about the platforms from which we consume information.
“Staying informed does not have to mean reading from every single source,” Jairam added. “It’s about choosing reliable sources that give you the information you need to keep connected respectfully.”
Jairam noted how important it is to establish healthy boundaries and be willing to reject sources that do not fulfil your informational needs.
This is key when staying updated on the situation on the ground, especially if certain outlets indiscriminately share distressing images and videos of innocent people unnecessarily.
4. READ DIFFERENT TYPES OF NEWS EVEN OF THE SAME ISSUE
“Even in depressing times, there are moments of hope,” Jairam said. “So when you follow the news of an upsetting event, remember that good things take place even amid the situation.”
She provided examples to illustrate her point. In war, people and organisations come together to advocate for peace, and individuals on the ground strive to ensure safety and hope for their families.
Amid the ongoing climate crisis, scientists and researchers work on solutions to better conserve nature. Additionally, in the aftermath of a mass shooting, people come together for the victims and their loved ones.
“These moments may not solve the core issues of the event,” Jairam noted. “But it’s still important to know about them because it reminds us of people’s good actions and that gives us hope – that can prevent us from sinking into a dark place.”