Navigating Traumatic Events as Psychologists – And a Human Being
As I sit down to write this e-newsletter article, I am reeling from the largest mass shooting in U.S. history and wondering how to talk to my clients, children, and friends about this event. My friends have reached out to me, wanting to know why psychologists cannot predict violence, or prevent harm, or ways to navigate the helpless feelings that may arise when national disasters and traumatic events occur, seemingly in a constant cycle these days. I do not have perfect answers, but there are a number of resources that I can direct them towards as a way to manage emotional and cognitive distress.
Violence has plagued our society as long as we have been documenting history, yet it seems more visible, visceral, and “in your face” due to the 24/7 nature of news sources and social media. Raw video from disasters, man-made or otherwise, can be viewed with no filters, no warning notices, and tap into our fears. This triggers the availability bias, which can heighten the fears that we are vulnerable to shootings or hurricanes. This is despite the data that demonstrates our odds of being killed in a mass shooting is much lower than that of dying of suicide, car accident, or heart disease (National Safety Council; http://www.nsc.org/learn/safety-knowledge/Pages/injury-facts-chart.aspx). Additionally, research is demonstrating that repeated exposure to media coverage can trigger higher acute stress (Holman, Garfin, & Silver, 2013; http://www.pnas.org/content/111/1/93.abstract). For those with already-existing trauma or stress-related disorders, this can trigger a re-occurrence of their symptoms.
While psychologists are experts at helping others manage their emotions and cope with stressful times, I think it is a good reminder to consider reflect on how we are taking care of ourselves during this time. We are also human, and vulnerable to fears, worries, anxiety, sadness, anger, and other emotions related to daily stressors. The recommendations that APA and other national health groups offer are good reminders of ways to perform self-care in stressful times, and I want to remind all of us of a few of those suggestions.
Create a safe space. Our offices can be safe and brave spaces for our clients or students, but is there a space that you have where you can create peace and healing for yourself? Do you mindfully choose to retreat to this space when you need to sit and breathe, or restore your energy? My safe space is often outside, in nature, so that I can ground myself and reconnect with green space and fresh air.
Turn off media and electronics. Some of us may feel compelled to keep checking news for more information, or using social media to share information to help others. I am quite guilty of this (see my Twitter or FB accounts)! However, research shows that disconnecting from media sources, even for short periods of times, can be psychologically healthy. This also helps re-set our mental outlook to one that may be more realistic.
Use your support network. No matter whether you are introverted or extroverted, have a large or small network, this is a good time to reach out to those who support and love you, and remind yourself that there is still kindness and love in the world. It may just be a simple phone call or an offer to meet for coffee. Maybe it is snuggling with your pet, or a movie night with your family. Caregivers benefit from caregiving also.
Find balance. I continue to find that no matter what part of the career life-span that I am in currently, finding a balance in work/life as well as exposure to positive/negative news is one key to remaining healthy myself. We can seek out positive news stories and focus on the good things that are occurring in our daily lives, which may help buffer the effect of constant negative news.
Help others. While we do help our clients, students, and organizations on a daily basis, sometimes it is nice to move outside of those circles to do a kind act and spread positivity. Personally, I have started a Sunday afternoon tradition of writing one “card of gratitude” to a friend of mine. While this seems like a small act, it may be incredibly helpful to the recipient.
Take our own advice. We help others find ways to practice self-care, whether it be through mindfulness, relaxation breathing, cognitive restructuring, honoring emotions, exercise, healthy eating, etc. I am constantly reminded of the old adage that “we cannot help others if we do not help ourselves.” It is easy to focus on helping others and forget to take care of ourselves.
What other ways do you find are helpful in maintaining a focus on self-care in your daily life, especially in difficult times? Are there particular activities that seem to be calming, or invigorating? Please remember that part of OPA’s mission is to “support the personal and professional lives of psychologists throughout their lifespan, from student status through retirement.” If you are willing, I would love to hear the strategies that you are using care of yourself as well as additional ways OPA can support your self-care endeavors.
In closing, I want to share with you a brief list of resources that may be useful to both you and your clients and students. If you have additional resources, please feel free to email them to me.
Managing your Distress in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting
OPA Colleague Assistance Program
Tips for Survivors: Coping with Grief after a Disaster or Traumatic Event https://store.samhsa.gov/product/SMA17-5035
Coping with Traumatic Events: Resources for Children, Parents, Educators and Other Professionals:
Impact of Mass Shootings on Survivors, Families and Communities