On January 6, 2021, disgruntled rioters stormed the Capitol of the United States. During the insurrection five people were killed, private offices ransacked and senate halls and chambers defiled. Studies before the insurrection showed that the stream of bad news from the 2020 Covid-19 spread had already taken its toll on the country. Americans were overwhelmed, exhausted and vulnerable, counting down the days left until 2021 and looking forward to a more positive new year. The January 6th attacks, adding another layer of terror to the global pandemic threats, intruded upon the average citizen’s psychological safety and security. Whether we realize it or not, many of us who watched the desecration of the Capitol grounds from televisions, laptops or cell phones experienced vicarious trauma in our own living rooms—much like we did on September 11, 2001.
What Is Vicarious Trauma?
It’s difficult to know how many people were actually traumatized, but one thing is for sure. Vicarious trauma is real and often shows up in the aftermath as the dust settles from horrendous events. Vicarious trauma or vicarious terror are much the same—conditions resulting from the bombardment of the central nervous system transmitted through observation, instead of on a direct personal basis, in this case of the media. People who observe violent acts often show the same symptoms of individuals who are direct targets of terror.
The massive shock to the nervous system—sometimes known as Global High Intensity Activation or GHIA—can create a sense of disintegration and fragmentation, coupled with intense emotions such as crying, shallow breathing or lashing out. Other aftereffects are often difficulty sleeping, heightened anxiety, sensitivity to loud noises or dissociation—an emotional and physical numbing state in which you feel separated, isolated or disconnected from yourself and others. Panic attacks are not uncommon as the sympathetic nervous system secretes large amounts of adrenaline into the bloodstream to prepare for fight or flight. A freeze response along with post traumatic stress occurs since the trauma happens vicariously through the media under the radar of conscious awareness and there is no obvious threat to fight and no apparent need to flee.
Tips For Healing
In these extraordinary times of terrorism, trauma and uncertainty, taking care of your mental health and well-being is more essential than ever before. Here are some tried-and-true tips to begin the healing process.
1. Make a conscious effort to focus on the positive. Your brain is hard-wired to zoom in on violence, mayhem and terrorism for fight-or-flight purposes. So it’s important to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. This isn’t always easy, but it’s important to pay attention to good deeds or positive outcomes from the attack on the Capitol such as when the police protected elected senators and tried to restore order and when the senators shielded one another from the onslaught.
2. Limit exposure to the news. Set boundaries on the amount of time you listen to or watch the violent scenes played over and over in the media or continued analysis by broadcasters. Media saturation of sound bites and the repetitive barrage of images can further exacerbate and deepen vicarious trauma.
3. Reach out to others. Studies on PTSD show that when potential victims are able to take some kind of action to have a direct influence on their experience of the trauma, their symptoms are either reduced or nullified. Set a priority to make yourself and at least one other person smile or laugh in the next few days. Reach out to others and do something positive or share positive news with a co-worker, friend or family member, no matter how small.
4. Indulge yourself. Turn your bathroom into a spa by placing scented candles around the tub, playing calm, relaxing music, and drawing a warm bath with essential oils or rose petals. Dim the lights, slide into the tub, sip your favorite beverage and soak away the stressful images. Once finished, wrap yourself in a cotton, oversized towel.
5. Get moving. Just getting outside in nature is itself a form of stress reduction and relaxation. Balance your time between staying active and restorative rest. A walk or jog around the block combined with five minutes of meditation both give you a biochemical boost. Activity raises endorphins. Quieting your mind stimulates the part of your brain that dampens the surges of adrenaline and cortisol accompanying stress.
6. Meditate. Mindfulness meditation teaches your mind to do what it doesn’t do instinctively: to come back to the present, enjoy the moment and appreciate your life instead of focusing on worries of the future or regrets of the past. Meditation expert, Tara Brach, author of True Refuge, described the relationship we have to terrror and fear and how we can make a U-turn, get in touch with ourselves and cultivate self-compassion: “It’s important that we have a way of being with fear that allows us to open our hearts. That’s the opportunity of these times, that we can come through it with more compassion, more caring for ourselves and each other. Meditation lets us pause enough so we can enlarge our perspective and come back home to a calm refuge inside of us where we can respond to what’s going on with a lot more intelligence and heart.”
7. Be patient. Getting through a traumatic event rarely moves as fast as most of us want. Try not to push or fight the process of healing as it can backfire and stall getting to a more stable place.
8. Practice the trifecta of self-care: ample sleep, healthy nutrition and regular exercise. Make sure to unplug and take breaks that fit best your interests and lifestyle. Your body and brain will appreciate the pause, and your well-being and serenity will return the favor.
9. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Criticizing or putting yourself down after a crisis adds insult to injury. Studies show that self-love and self-affirmations serve as “cognitive expanders,” allowing us to talk to ourselves the way we might speak to someone else so that the trauma isn’t the only story we tell ourselves. As a result, self-love provides the fuel that boosts our moods. Make a pact with yourself that you are going to be loving and kind. Use self-soothing, pep talks and a nurturing voice in your self-talk.
10. Seek outside counseling. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, don’t hesitate to reach out for help or find someone to talk to. Contact Mental Health America to find resources closest to you or call 1-800-273-8255, a 24 hour crisis center. You can also call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746 at the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline. Trained crisis workers will listen to you and direct you to the resources you need. In an emergency, call 911 or contact a local hospital or mental health facility. HelpGuide is a nonprofit organization that provides free, evidenced-based resources to help people suffering from a “disease of despair” to understand and navigate mental health challenges. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress. 800-273-8255.
A Final Word
If you’re like most people, you have unease—if not trauma—over the state of the nation and the world as a result of the unexpected assault on the Capitol. As the images of the insurrection continue to cause anxiety, uncertainty, and post traumatic stress, it’s essential to use these 10 tips to take care of yourself. We’re all in this together, and history has taught us that if all of us do our individual part and support one another, then together we can overcome any hardship—no matter how dire the circumstances.