I am not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV.
I am a social scientist. Most of you probably know or expect that since I’m a professor.
What you may not know is that I study emotional trauma. Specifically, I study secondary trauma or that which reveals itself after an individual is exposed indirectly to a traumatic event.
Here’s the ugly truth. We’re all exposed to a lot of traumatic events. Trauma is a reality in our world. It’s easy to identify recent traumas we’ve experienced on a national level—the Steubenville rape case, the California teen who hanged herself after a sexual assault, the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the craziness that followed, and the fertilizer plant explosion in West Texas are just a few.
All of these traumatic happenings don’t include what’s going on in your personal life, assuming you are remotely removed from the widely-discussed issues above. In the last couple of weeks, I experienced the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, a death in the family and news of a family friend’s life-threatening cancer diagnosis. I bet you’ve had some negative life experiences as well.
Trauma has become a constant in our lives, sometimes with multiple traumatic happenings affecting us seemingly all at once. It’s easy to get caught up in the sadness of it all. It’s normal to feel sad. Yes, even for you. No one is immune to the potential impact of emotional trauma.
The good news is that there are many ways for you to help yourself and each other through difficult times. Here are just a few:
Understand exposure. You do not have to be exposed directly to a traumatic event to experience negative emotions as a result of it. I live in Oklahoma. My closest association to Boston is a former student who lives there and was safe during the bombing. I still felt sadness and anguish as it was happening and avoided television coverage of the event almost entirely.
Avoid judgement. We cope with trauma in a variety of ways. While there are “typical” responses, there is no “normal” response. You should be understanding and supportive of other people’s feelings, even if they don’t make sense to you. Remember, it’s acceptable to cry, be angry or find humor in unusual things.
Provide support. There is expansive research showing that social and organizational support helps people to cope more effectively with trauma exposure and its aftermath. Social support can be as simple as reaching out to a friend and telling her you’re there to talk. Organizational support is as easy as asking an employee if she is ok or if she needs to take a break.
Recognize context. You are more likely to be impacted by a traumatic event if you personally were victim of trauma in the past. Be aware of this and recognize if current traumas are bringing up reminders of past experiences.
Remain positive. I know this sounds cliche, but there is research supporting positive thinking leading to happier feelings. It’s called play acting. The longer you play act that you’re happy, the happier you will become.
Engage hobbies. Alternative tasks like exercise, music, art, reading, etc. can remove your attention from things that trouble you and help you focus on more positive components of life. As a side, spirituality and journaling also have been shown to help in coping with trauma.
Get rest. Everything really does seem worse when you’re tired. If you find yourself becoming weepy, unnecessarily angry or frustrated, consider whether you’re getting enough sleep. Eating well also is a factor worth mentioning here. Make sure your diet allows you to focus on your mental health.
Limit contact. Limit the amount of exposure you have to traumatic happenings. For example, as I mentioned above, I was upset by media coverage of the Boston marathon, specifically what I saw as unprofessional coverage on television, so I avoided that coverage. I chose, instead, to stay informed by reading a news story or two a day. Believe me, that was plenty. I took this same approach of image avoidance after the school shooting in Newtown. I read social media updates of friends who were “glued” to the television until the second Boston suspect was caught. Information also is a coping method. It’s important to recognize what you can handle.
I have studied trauma, but I am not a doctor. These points above may help you in coping with trauma exposure. However, if you have feelings of sadness or anxiety for longer than a couple of weeks, especially if they interfere with your ability to function normally, please see a doctor.