Humanitarian Crisis in Ukraine – How to Minimize Vicarious Trauma?
With the war unfolding in Ukraine, many are suffering directly or indirectly. Second-hand trauma is a presenting issue affecting even those watching the war from afar. The constant worry for the safety of loved ones and fear of the unknown are very real and understandable stressors that are impacting mental health on a large scale. Repeated exposure to the visual and graphic images of those suffering in Ukraine and receiving continuous alerts can lead to experiencing vicarious trauma from the war.
What Is Vicarious Trauma?
According to the American Counseling Association, vicarious trauma concerns the “cost of caring” for others. Other terms also used to describe vicarious trauma are compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and secondary victimization. For example, counselors who work with trauma survivors may experience vicarious trauma due to the nature of their work. Counselors may become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors endure and absorb a lot of this emotionally.
Ongoing exposure to traumatic events on the news and/or social media can have the same effect and take an overwhelming emotional toll on viewers over time.
What Are the Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma?
Vicarious trauma may present itself in various symptoms that are different for each individual.
The following are symptoms listed by Women’s Health:
- Physical: weaker immune system, headache, fatigue
- Psychological: powerless, numb, anxious, fearful, hopeless
- Behavioral: irritability, changes in sleep and appetite, withdrawal from friends and family, substance abuse
- Spiritual: lack of purpose, questioning the meaning of life
- Relational: difficulty connecting with others, lonely, low sex drive, disinterest in social interaction
How Is the World Affected by The Violence Unfolding in Ukraine?
Many people are being personally and/or indirectly affected by the invasion of Ukraine. Some may have loved ones still living in Ukraine and fear for their safety. Others may indirectly be feeling the pain of Ukrainians just by watching the news. Understandably, a lot of people feel overwhelmed, anxious, and sad. It is a natural human condition to feel empathy for others, especially in a collective trauma such as war. In addition, the constant warning of potential cyberattacks and other threats may incite panic and pose a high alert for what is to come. According to the American Psychological Association, overexposure to media during a crisis is linked to worsened mental and physical health.
The Impact of the War in Ukraine on Mental Health?
Exposure to the events happening in Ukraine may have impact on your mental health. Some may struggle with this exposure more than others. However, research has shown that the greater exposure people have to media portraying tragedy, the more likely they are to report feeling distressed. Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, a professor of psychology who studies stress and coping at the University of California, Irvine, found that repeated news exposure in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks correlated with acute stress and post-traumatic stress and physical health problems two to three years later. Similar findings were shown for the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
How To Cope with Vicarious Trauma?
Managing vicarious trauma can be difficult, especially in the unpredictability of the world today. The violence unfolding in Ukraine can make those watching at a distance feel helpless. While we may not be able to participate in the war effort directly, there are small areas where we can exert control. Some possible coping methods may include limiting time spent watching the news and taking care of your mental and physical health.
While staying informed is important, limiting the amount of daily news intake may be helpful, especially exposure to graphic visual imagery. Remember to take care of yourself. Activities such as going for walks and practicing deep breathing can be beneficial ways of relaxing your body and staying mindful. Supporting others can also help reduce distress by instilling gratitude and hope, even during this stressful time of uncertainty. Some ways that we can indirectly help include supporting a local Ukrainian community. Some communities may organize supplies to send to Ukraine or accept Ukrainian refugees. You can also contribute money to recognized humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In addition to managing stress during this time, it is also important to acknowledge that having feelings of concern in response to violence and war is normal and understandable.
Connect with a therapist who’s specialized in women’s mental health today.
Abrams, Zara. (2022, March 22). How to Handle the Trauma of War from Afar. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2022/trauma-war-afar
Miller, Korin. (2021, April 20). You Might be Suffering from ‘Vicarious Trauma’ from Watching the News. Women’s Health. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a36179015/vicarious-trauma-how-to-cope/
American Counseling Association. Vicarious Trauma. Retrieved on March 27.