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Vicarious Trauma: What You Consume On Social Media Can Traumatize You

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The impact social media has in our lives is massive which is why along with the positivity that comes from connectivity we carry the negative effect as well. Taking a moment to watch empowering content comes along with the reason behind the empowerment. As any young woman you have lost a day or more immersed in the happenings in the world and people’s lives. Over time you realized the content you watched in trying to understand the present in this world from victims or those who share stories with major emotional impact affected you. The trauma you sympathized with unknowingly grabbed a hold of you in what you came to realize later as vicarious or secondary trauma.

Statistics of social media usage

  • According to sprout social, as of January 2022, there are 3.96 billion total social media users across all platforms with the amount of time adults use social media across all platforms is now higher than ever; 95 minutes per day.
  • 1 in 3 adults regularly consume news from Facebook, signaling the popularity of timely (and often controversial) content on the platform.
  • TikTok boasts One billion active users spread across 154 countries

What is vicarious trauma exactly?

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Image: Kat Smith

Vicarious trauma (VT) is defined as unfavorable changes, affective and cognitive, resulting from exposure to second-hand traumatic material. There are two forms of trauma we encounter, direct trauma and indirect trauma. Vicarious trauma also known as secondary traumatic stress falls under indirect because it occurs to someone else but affects you from visual or word of mouth consumption.

With the current global community there is a lot of unrest in political and social fields that we are exposed to. What used to be at a distance, a simple glance at the news report has come closer as a result of social media. We get to see devastating things happening in real time, listening to the stories and witnessing the impact. People are able to record and share with the global community with a few clicks of a button.  There is often no filter or if present a limited one so gruesome acts are seen in detail.

This not only happens on social media but with in-person relations. Modern times have come with the bonus opportunity for us to open up freely about our problems without ridicule. Our struggles are an open discussion where we can receive help from those around us. The double edged side is when you want to there for a friend and support them they open up to you about their trauma and its impact on their lives. Their dark and disturbing stories slowly stir your emotions and responses to the world. We may fail to realize the impact as it happens. You start being hyper vigilant, avoid certain places as well as visceral reactions to stimuli that you were okay with previously.

The events told to you imprint on your mind and body in similar ways to the one suffering from first hand trauma. Health workers and social workers are some of the most exposed to it as a result of constant dealings with survivors of traumatic events. With the advent of social media we get the same impact from watching and talking about incidents.

One of the biggest moments in history that brought the vicarious trauma on the table was the 9/11. The constant media coverage of the live happenings had a major impact on society to this day as it brought the audience into the space they weren’t privy to earlier. It solidified the emotions and memories they encountered. There was widespread fear and anger which brought about distrust and vulnerability.

In recent times we are exposed to videos of beheadings, gun violence and stabbings on twitter as long as a person with a phone was present. Knowing these things in important as it helps us find ways to overcome it, seek reforms and create awareness however that awareness becomes overwhelming.

“Social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact on our daily lives. In this study we wanted to see if people would experience longer lasting effects such as stress and anxiety, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorders from viewing these images.” said by Dr. Pam Ramsden from the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Bradford.

The study revealed that twenty two per cent of the participants reported significant signs of trauma in regards to violent news events consumed through social media.

Sexual violence is a major discussion that is held on social media especially TikTok where victims find safe spaces to be heard and believed. The space offers room to process and heal which is a remarkable thing many never heard before. Perpetrators thrived in the secrecy forced on their victims whereas now one can name their perpetrator and speak of the harm done to them.

Where the authorities fail to listen and act one has a supportive community behind them. As you support them you need to be aware of your mental and emotional health. Once you recognize the symptoms you can step back and find ways to cope or separate from the situation for your own good.

Symptoms of vicarious trauma

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Image: Rene Asmussen
  • You are always hyper vigilant and in a state of constant awareness due to fears over your safety.  This leaves you too exhausted and fragile to engage with the outside world. Tension and fear have you spending your money on weapons to protect you from the unseen danger you could encounter. After all if the victim was similar your brain paints you as a potential victim.
  • Avoiding certain places and people. The information that traumatized you can leave you with biases of certain people and places even when not warranted. An example is with the recent pandemic, the way information was disseminated led to an outburst of anger and violence against Asians. It was needless and unjustified but a gut reaction that overtook the fearful masses that clung to the first word they received even though it was wrong.
  • Doom scrolling or doom surfing where you spend a lot of type scrolling your social media feed for negative stories. You convinced yourself that by watching he negative that happens will prepare you for what to do when something does happen. The danger is the restlessness you get stuck with over time as you dive deeper into the abyss.
  • Anxiety. What used to make you happy becomes the thing that gives you anxiety when you think about doing so you refrain from it all together. If I was evening strolls with your dog, you avoid going out and your stress and anxiety affects your dog making them less social.
  • Sleep problems. Whenever you sleep you are plagued by bad dreams and nightmares that keep you awake. The lack of sleep worsens your mental health sending you to a spiral of negativity without a way to set it aside long enough to sleep.
  • Hopelessness and diminished sense of purpose. The future seems bleak to you and the thing that once drove you is overtaken by fears and what ifs that leave you reluctant to try.
  • Pessimism and cynicism. The content you consume changes how you look at things. Your rose colored glasses are dulled to the point you only see the worst in everything. The belief that plagues you is that the evil in the world will prevail over the good no matter how hard you try.
  • Experiencing bystander guilt and shame. This is especially worse if you had a wonderful growing up. Your ease of life leaves you feeling guilty when you listen to how much people had to endure.
  • Over identification with the victims and survivors. You can empathize with them and the tragedy that has befallen them however do not be excessive. Be balanced in your approach to the matter at hand.
  • Emotional instability. Feelings of fear, anger and irritability are commonly tied to vicarious trauma so you have to check your emotional health. If they start presenting beyond the acceptable level to the information received then you need to take a step back.

How address and reduce risk of vicarious trauma

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Image: Andrea Piacquadio
  • Work on your self-observation skills.

This will help you recognize troubling signs before they become problematic. It will also act as a warning on when you need to step forward or back in order to ensure you are mentally well.

  • Take care of your emotional needs.

In the day to day grind we often forget about our emotional wellbeing. To progress in our careers we push it to the side as an issue to be dealt with at a later date which is very unhealthy. Like your body needs constant nourishment so does your emotional health. You can do this by practicing self-care and engaging in relaxing activities that let you self sooth and feel rejuvenated.

  • Maintain a healthy online and offline life balance.

 While going on social media provides opportunities for education and escapism, overindulgence will leave you in a bad spot. The best ways to manage he time you spend online is by setting aside an hour or two in your daily planner that you can spend on social media. When that window is over you have enough time to build your offline life and maintain healthy relationships. This is key to prevent being overwhelmed.

  • Realism when facing negativity.

The statement if only I could or I wish I was there is not healthy for you to keep living on. When you hear or watch something that affects you realizing what you can accomplish in your current state is important. If it is signing petitions or being vocal on related forums, or educating those around you on the issue then you have done well within your means. Offering the right kind of support doesn’t mean beating yourself up over what could have been but working to ensure the chances of it happening again are lower even by one.

  • Don’t take responsibility for the other party’s wellbeing.

Truth is when a person speaks of their trauma it is no up to you to ensure they are well. You can offer support in other ways such as connecting them to services and tools that can help with recovery. Vocal or written support is also another way you can stand by them, keeping them up through their trying times.

  • Disconnect from the negativity.

After spending time consuming media with a lot of negativity attached to them you need to have healthy ways to step out of that zone. Your mental health is a priority thus finding healthy ways to separate from it is important. Some of the ways you can do it is through activities such as swimming or yoga to relax you or spending time with loved ones to pick your mood.

  • Consumer mindfulness.

With vicarious trauma you are impacted by what you consume on your social media feed. You need to be aware and mindful of what you consume when you go online to avoid being overwhelmed. To prevent being bombarded by negative news you can have multiple social media accounts where each has different tones. The lighter feed is your go to and the other can be an indulgence you partake in certain times. This will give you more of a separation while allowing you to connect with the world at large.

Bottom line

Vicarious trauma or secondary stress trauma is a real problem that affects many. By being indirect it can weave its way into your life without you realizing it which makes it very important to monitor what we consume. Social media is a daily habit you engage in with reports revealing that the average person spends time bouncing between at least five social networks each month. For this reason you need to monitor what you see, tailor healthy feeds separate from the intense in order to enjoy your time online.

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