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.
Here’s the ugly truth. We’re all exposed to a lot of traumatic events, those which result in at least one person’s death or a near-death experience. Trauma is a reality in our profession and in our world.
Trauma slapped our profession in the face today when two journalists were killed by a man who used to work with them at WDBJ7-TV in Virginia. Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, 27, were fatally shot while filming an interview. The suspect later shot himself and died at a hospital.
I did not know Alison, Adam or the suspect, but I still felt shock, anger and sadness when I read about their murders. These emotions were even stronger when I learned their deaths were being shown on television and online.
I didn’t know them, but I’m sad that they died. They were young journalists. They were two of “us.” Their deaths are sad to me, and that’s ok.
It’s normal to feel sad. Yes, even for journalists. No one is immune to the potential impact of a traumatic event.
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. The shootings today happened in Virginia. I didn’t know the victims, but I still relate to them as fellow professionals and feel sad that they died.
Avoid judgment. 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 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. Talking it out (what mental health professionals call “debriefing”) is a form of coping with trauma exposure and can be beneficial. 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 cliché, 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, don’t watch loops of coverage of today’s shootings. I, personally, am choosing not to watch any footage because I don’t need to see these young people be killed. However, because information also is a coping method, I did read news reports about what happened. I needed to be informed, but I don’t need the visuals. 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.