I think it’s important to realize that we humans can be heavily affected by traumatic events, including ones that haven’t directly happened to us, but that we’ve been exposed to somehow nonetheless.
‘Trauma by proxy’ is absolutely included in the trauma spectrum, so no matter how you’ve been exposed to a horrific event, whether it was as an eyewitness or from repeated exposure to media coverage or to other people talking about it, chances are that you’re building up a stress level from the trauma that you may not even realize.
So what does this mean and what should you do about it?
It means that, if you’re not cognizant of the amount of exposure that you’re getting, then you’re likely to let it build up uninterruptedly and to eventually suffer symptoms similar to those with full fledged PTSD such as sleep disturbances, depression, mood swings, increased anger, panic and anxiety, energy and focus problems, etc.
What you need to do about it is simple: Take a break.
Often it’s the guilt (survivor guilt) that plays a strong role in keeping us in a self-imposed continuous exposure to a tragedy. We feel that if we do anything ‘normal’ or that if we think about anything else for a while then we’re not being respectful or thoughtful about the victims of the horror.
Nothing can be further from the truth.
In fact, it’s just the opposite: If you don’t take care of yourself, not only will you run the very real risk of getting sick, both physically and mentally, but you also risk losing sight of the road ahead and the people that may need you along that road, including your family and friends.
Remember to take care of yourself, and that it’s okay to let your heart and mind take a break from the front lines and to regenerate your emotional and physical batteries. In other words, pace yourself and the dose you’re are taking in, for it’s not benign stuff, and chances are it IS building up in you, even though you may not realize it.
And what to do if your exposure has already gotten to the point of giving you symptoms like those I’ve listed above, or others that don’t seem to be subsiding even with appropriate rest and self-care? I’d advise that you seek out professional counseling at that point, even for just a short while until you can once again see the road ahead more clearly.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
Author, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand a Few Things First)