Managing Media Trauma

Media is a source of information which tunes us into the events of the nation and the world. It brings us information and experiences from our neighborhood to the neighborhood of a foreign land. Much of media content is composed to get your attention and increase the number of consumers. The more interesting, dramatic, taboo, exciting, and outside our normal reality, the more the public can not help but to take in what the media has to present. While there are benefits to knowing what is happening in our world, there are consequences to the volume of images and audio which barrage our senses.

When traumatic events occur, the media puts aside the day to day news and replaces it with the horrific details of how the crisis is unfolding. Whether the intention is to bring awareness, increase ratings, or document history, the public ends up glued to the news channels, papers, online forums, and social media. Our world is flooded with sights and sounds of atrocities beyond the norm. The safety and balance of our society is rattled.

It is easy to believe the screen of the TV or computer removes us from the trauma. It is becoming more and more understood the incredibly negative impact this experience has on us. A study was published in 2013 regarding the mental and physical effects of exposure to media coverage of 9/11. The authors found extensive exposure to media coverage can turn a vicarious experience into a collective trauma. Additionally, it doesn't even have to be the video and audio we often see. Simply being subjected to still pictures of strangers experiencing trauma can result in a stress response.

So how do we deal with the disasters in the world which we find both tragic and fascinating? How do we keep from being traumatized ourselves?


1.Take Notice of Your Feelings: Don't passively watch. Check in with yourself and see if you are having strong reactions of fear, anxiety, disorientation, trouble sleeping/nightmares, changes in eating, pervasive thoughts of the event, feelings of lack of safety, overwhelming sadness. Notice them and put them in context. Understand they are related to the event coverage rather than your immediate situation.

2.Express Your Feelings: To put it mildly, these things are awful. We are allowed to have a strong emotional response to them. Express your anger. Cry if needed. Just because we are not living it, does not mean we are disconnected from the devastation of our fellow humans. We are all members of the human race and empathize with the experience of others. We are equipped with empathy to feel for and be compassionate towards others. It is important to community and humanity. Dr. Ramachandran, a cognitive neuroscientist, found evidence our empathy is connected to our mirror neurons. These are the parts of our brain which cause a baby, within the first month of life, to stick its tongue out just as their parent does. It's the learning which takes place by watching and mimicking others. If we watch someone reach for candy, the same areas of our brain light up as if we were reaching for candy ourselves. If we watch someone in anguish and fear, the same areas of our brain will light up as if the fear and anguish was ours. There is a feeling of connection to those we see in the media clips and will feel sad and scared for them. Express this and permit yourself to be okay with having these feelings.

3.Turn It Off: If you are having overwhelming reactions, turn it off. Turn off the TV. Stop searching the internet. Take a break from social media. A digital detox is recommended under normal circumstances. A digital detox is a great way to shut down this influx of terror and allow yourself to manage those feelings.

4.Mindfulness: Meditation and mindfulness calm the stress responses. It refocuses us on the here and now. It directs our mind away from the "what ifs", worse case scenarios, and universalizing of the fear.

5.Self-Care: When we are mindful of our self, we can identify our needs and tend to them. Maintaining a regular sleep cycle, continuing with a normal eating pattern, regular activity, and engagement in enjoyable activities helps to manage stress responses to a collective trauma.

 6.Look for the Good: Terroristic acts are meant to destroy a large population through fear and destruction. As a people, we respond with some very contrary behaviors. We become closer and demonstrate a selflessness not seen under normal circumstances. People sacrifice their safety to save others. Communities pull together to rebuild that which has crumbled around them. Large stadiums of people come together in moments of silence. Masses of people give of their time and resources to provide for those in need. There are an abundance of stories of bravery. These are the stories which deserve focus and remind us there is a lot of good in our life. Use these stories to identify other goods in your life and have appreciation for the things we do have.

7.Don't Forget the Children: It is easy to think our kids don't understand and, therefore, aren't effected by what is happening. Keep in mind their reactions may not be obvious so it is harder to see the impact it is having on them. The same study on the effect of media exposure mentioned previously also measured the impact of media exposure of 9/11 on children. They found children as far as London demonstrated post traumatic stress responses to the event. This brings to light the reactions children can have to the news.           

Some responses to take notice of are increased stress, anxiety, fear, grief, difficulty concentrating, themes of disasters or death in their play or art work, and behavior problems. You can help ease these reactions by helping them understand what is happening, put the event in context, explain how the media works as far as sensationalizing and their focus in crises, help them remember good things, reassure them of their safety, and be sure to validate their feelings. Avoid things such as telling them they are overreacting or it didn't happen to them so they shouldn't be so upset. If their responses become intrusive and disrupt their daily functioning, it is okay to talk to professionals (e.g, school staff or counselors) about helping your child process what they are going through.


In the end, let us not over estimate our immunity to these issues. Let us not underestimate our resiliency. It is difficult to know of these acts and the devastation they cause but we are able to manage these feelings and move forward. Proactive care of ourselves is a great protective factor to prevent stress and collective trauma.

-Alison Atkins, MA, LPCC                                                                                                 

Posted on October 5, 2017 .

The art of intention

I was recently exploring self care practices with a client. There are numerous types and manners in which we can care for ourselves. For example, we may want to practice relaxation. We may want to get grounded, meditate, "come back to ourselves"- or as this client and I were describing, to unhook (shall I say detox?) from others unhealthy energy. We may want to take care of our bodies, perhaps by way of exercising. We may want to nurture our creative side.  And so on...

While exploring self care practices with my client, we determined that the actions were there but the intent was missing. Let me explain. She would make and take a detox bath for herself but would get in the bathtub and get right on her iPad. Strength: taking a detox bath (see a great recipe for this below). Concern: she lacked mindfulness; awareness of what she was giving to her mind and body. 

No matter how short or simple your act of self care is- formalize it!  Come up with an affirmation, meditation, and/or prayer to implement intention. Try some of these: 

  1. "I am taking this time to cleanse and heal my body". Then take some breaths and really visualize what you want your body to receive (e.g. Increased muscle strength, relaxation from stretching, release of negative emotions). 
  2. "I am taking this time to give myself a break/come back to myself/refill my cup". Then physically remove yourself from the chaos/your office space/etc. and make your break worth it! 
  3. Say a prayer before and after your act of self care. This can be to any spiritual entity, the sun, nature, or even yourself. Practice formally beginning and ending your acts of self care so that they are sacred.  

Or choose your own way of setting intention for your time to care for yourself!  And let me know your great ideas and how it changes your self care routine! 


P.S. Make a lovey detox bath by adding baking soda, Epsom salt, and some lavender essential oils.  Don't forget to hydrate too! Enjoy! 


The art of doing nothing

The recent spring snow storms of Colorado have reminded many of us to slow down.  I've even heard from clients, "the snow storm allowed me a weekend to do nothing". Wait just a minute!!!  WE can give ourselves permission to slow down, relax, "do nothing", etcetera etcetera.   And we should!  (Many of you know how I feel about the word "should", and... I will still use it here).  

My wise uncle recently told me, during a conversation about my move to private practice only, that it's also okay to do nothing sometimes.  A good reminder for me too!  Most of us live in an environment that promotes go go go.  "Doing nothing" appears lazy, like something we are only allowed to do if we take a beach vacation.  Our minds and bodies actually NEED down time to rejuvenate.  We truly can give ourselves and others permission to relax and revive. 

How do we do this you ask? 

1) Take a mental health day (sick day) from work.  If you were throwing up and/or contagious from the flu, you would stay home, correct?  How is feeling mentally unwell any different?  Take a day to heal your mental health just like you would your physical health.  Doing this from time to time actually reduces our chances of getting serious mental or physical illnesses that take us out for weeks or longer at a time.  Ideally, we would work a mental health day per month into our schedule....ready to go for it?

2) Prioritize your mental health/need for relaxation as you would your physical health. If you injured yourself, would you pay whatever necessary to heal it through doctors?  Same philosophy as above...if your mind or body feels injured from stress, depression, anxiety, just the go go go of it, heal it!  Rest. Comfort yourself. Pamper yourself. Check in with a mental health professional or other healer. Rest. 

3) Make relaxation part of your routine as you would exercise or the like. We don't have to wait until we are feeling mentally unwell to rest. Work it into your schedule! This can look like a few minutes a day, when you take the time to breathe and stretch. This can look like a weekend a month to do something you truly want to do- whether it be binging on Netflix or hiking a 14er. Remember, relaxation and rejuvenation looks different for each of us. 

Feel like that's a good start to give yourself permission to go do nothing for while?  I hope so. 

I'm off to do a little nothing.....