Let’s talk … About secondary trauma

If you haven’t been following the news lately, you probably have smelled the smoke and noticed the ash dust on your car window. The catastrophic fires in California’s North Bay brought tragedy to our back door.

We in the U.S. have recently experienced repeated natural and man-made disasters. If you were fortunate enough to not be direct victims of the hurricanes, fires, mass shootings, and political diatribe of hate, you may have nonetheless become victims of secondary trauma.

It’s not unusual, when tragedy strikes, to turn to the news on our electronic devices where we can get immediate and real-life access to the emerging and consuming details of what is happening. It can begin with interest and curiosity, and then lead to a way to avoid feeling helpless about the situation, but for many, an obsessive addiction to tragedy news can lead to mental health problems.

Secondary trauma or “witness trauma” is the result of being repeatedly bombarded by second-hand news and updates about the disturbing circumstances of loss, injury, death and misery.

Much like the experience of someone who randomly happens to witness an accident, though not directly involved, that person may develop symptoms of trauma such as difficulty sleeping, nightmares, stomach aches, excessive worries, agitation, irritability, and depression. These may not last long and usually not as severe as those experienced by a direct victim, but depending on a person’s previous exposure to traumatic events, these symptoms can be disturbing and yet out of one’s awareness.

People are advised to limit exposure to disturbing news. Your brain takes in information and does not fully distinguish between what you are witnessing and what you are experiencing.

For example, what happens when you recall sitting in a roller coaster holding on tight, or thinking about umeboshi on rice? It’s likely that you feel butterflies in your stomach or increased saliva in your mouth. Just the thought of these moments cause an involuntary physical response.

In the same way, when you are watching and listening to disturbing events, especially when it is repeated over and over again, your brain is signaling your body for potential danger. Stress hormones are then released into your system, triggering a fight, flight, or freeze response. But since such responses are not required of someone watching the news on their iPhones, these stress hormones can stay in your system and lead to symptoms.

First responders, therapists, even family and friends offering support and comfort to direct victims, often suffer from secondary trauma symptoms. They are advised to take breaks from the exposure, practice relaxation techniques, engage in other activities that bring pleasure, debrief and talk with others about their experience.

In the same way, if you find yourself obsessing over tragic events and feel compelled to watch the news at all hours of the day, you might consider some of the advice here. For some, when possible, actually doing something to help the victims can feel very gratifying and uplifting. Sending and collecting donations, volunteering time and skills can benefit victims as well as the compassionate witness. Daruma psychology says, seven times down, but the eighth time up often requires a helping hand.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in intergenerational trauma. She can be reached at satsukina44@gmail.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” — www.children-of-the-camps.org and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story” — www.fromasilkcocoon.com). Views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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