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BAD NEWS: How To Cope When You Witness Violence and Trauma 

There’s no shame in acknowledging you need help. You can start with a trusted friend or your faith leader....

We might assume that only those who directly experience an event would experience trauma. But they would be wrong. 

While directly experiencing violent events in person is traumatic, simply witnessing them virtually can be disturbing enough to lead to distressing thoughts, feelings, and even physical symptoms, including headaches and stomachaches.

The hopeful news is that we humans are incredibly resilient and have the capacity to work through issues. 

Though there are many variables that are out of our individual control, there are steps we can take, both individually and collectively, to cope.

Know That You Experienced Something Real

Watching traumatic events unfold directly or indirectly (on TV) gets processed by the brain in the same way. It's important to note that sometimes the signs of distress occur immediately, and sometimes they can be delayed. Signs of response to trauma include sustained sadness, anxiety, depressed moods, impaired function in daily life, poor appetite, weight gain, sustained feelings of hopelessness or helplessness and sleep issues.

It’s important to not overconsume images. Watching these events repeatedly on television, or following every twist and turn on social media, will just reignite the trauma. 

Don’t Pretend It’s Not Happening

We’ve all witnessed stress-producing events: the pandemic, the protest, police brutality. First give yourself permission to experience all that you are feeling. These feelings are your own, and they are valid, so give yourself the grace and space to deal with them. 

When It Comes to Coping, Find What Works Best for You

I often say we are all in the same storm, but we're not in the same boat. Different people have different lived experiences, different vantage points, and different needs.

Use your usual coping skills: Meditate, pray, exercise, connect with and spend time with a loved one, or take extra “me time.” 

Skip the Urge to Self-Medicate

While it may be tempting, this is not the time to have an extra glass of wine or use food, drugs, or tobacco to manage your emotions. Relying on these things can leave you with other problems.

Stick to Your Routine

Following an established routine can make things feel more normal and calming, whether that’s having dinner at the same time, watching your favorite TV show, or going for a walk with a friend. In the midst of the pandemic, routines may be new, but they are still important. It allows us to control what we can. 

Words Matter  

When describing traumatic or disturbing events, using accurate and appropriate words is key. Truth telling, transparency, and trust building allow informed dialogue.

Ask for Help

There’s no shame in acknowledging you need help. You can start with a trusted friend or your faith leader. But don’t delay if you think you may need professional help. 

Allow Children to Talk About Their Feelings, and Help Them to Process Events

It's not uncommon for a child to become fearful, distressed, or confused after a traumatic event. 

Here’s how you can help them deal with the trauma. 

  • Take their concerns seriously. Your child’s fears may be unrealistic, but they are real to them. It’s important to listen and respond without mockery in an open, honest, and supportive manner. Remember to use age-appropriate language. Be in tune with your child’s unique needs. Daily check-ins to discuss thoughts and feelings, and talking about stress, can be helpful.

  • Don’t make assumptions. Instead of saying “I know you’re angry or frightened,” let them tell you what they’re feeling. It allows them to be honest about their emotions instead of trying to meet your expectations. 

  • I lean on one of my many favorite quotes from Mr. Rogers: “Look for the helpers.” There are people who are working on the situation.

  • Don’t medicalize normal reactions. Like adults, it’s normal for children to experience negative emotions after a traumatic event, so don’t overreact and possibly exacerbate their negative experiences. If the feelings persist, however, consider professional help.

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