When your mental health suffers from vicarious trauma

A woman watches as a journalist protests against the war on Ukraine on a Russian news show. Being plugged into news about conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine all the time can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. — AFP

For many of us, it may be hard to look the other way from news of the conflict in Ukraine now, despite being thousands of miles away from the scene.

Some of us may know of Malaysians having to terminate their studies or jobs to escape from being caught in the war.

For all Malaysians, the fear of rising fuel prices and the consequent increase in cost of living might be keeping us on edge.

It may have also crossed the minds of many that a potential world war, even a nuclear war, may not be a farfetched reality.

We have just come out of the mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and remain psychologically vulnerable.

Some of us continue to struggle with unprocessed anxiety, grief and loss.

We simply do not have the mental strength to endure another hardship.

The mainstream news and social media posts from Ukraine and its neighbouring countries have invaded our living rooms.

While reputable news agencies are generally circumspect in this issue and authenticate news and images before disseminating them, the same cannot be said of social media.

Fake news, altered images of human suffering, and the murder of children and old people, are abuzz on social media.

Seeing these horrifying pictures and videos from the ongoing destruction has a strong impact on our mental health.

The raw nature of the images, can mean unexpectedly seeing things one would rather not see and cannot “unsee”.

Trauma at a remove

Recently, I came across the term “doom scrolling”.

This refers to the act of constantly checking for updates and routinely scrolling through posts on social media whenever there is negative news.

Spending an excessive amount of screentime absorbing bad news, makes people feel worse in the moment.

This is certainly harmful in the long run too.

Particularly vulnerable are those with pre-existing medical conditions like depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), who may become even more psychologically decompensated through such vicarious trauma.

It is not unusual for heightened anxiety due to something that happens – even if it is thousands of miles away – when the mind is already at its most vulnerable.

Vicarious trauma is real and often shows up in the aftermath of horrendous events.

It is also referred to as vicarious terror because the condition results from the bombardment of the central nervous system in our body that is transmitted through observation, instead of direct personal contact – in this case, via media.

There have been cases of people who, having observed violent acts, show the same symptoms as individuals who are direct targets of terror.

They may experience intense emotions such as crying, shallow breathing or lashing out.

Other effects may include difficulty sleeping, heightened anxiety and sensitivity to loud noises.

Some may experience “dissociation”, which is an emotional and physically-numbing state in which one feels separated, isolated or disconnected from oneself and others.

Those with an existing diagnosis of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who are concerned that they may be experiencing these symptoms, must reach out to mental health professionals to seek immediate help.

Keep calm and seek help

So, what can you do to prevent this effect?

Firstly, it is good to limit news consumption to certain times of the day.

This may mean simply switching off certain news feeds after a certain hour.

Be discriminatory when you read posts or articles – it is better to rely on verified news sources, rather than to be taken up by unauthenticated images, videos or news items on social media.

Those with mental health conditions should focus on techniques to keep calm and maintain stability in their thoughts, feelings and actions.

These may include reaching out to family and friends, and making time to connect with the people one enjoys spending time with.

Do not wait too long or shy away altogether from seeking professional support if needed.

Spiritual help is also crucial in such difficult times for those who are inclined to religion.

It is also advisable to pay equal attention to physical health.

Eating healthy meals on a regular schedule, having an exercise routine, and avoiding over-consumption of alcohol and other substances can ensure physical and mental well-being.

After all, physical health and mental health are two sides of the same coin.

Focus on the good

The circumstances in Ukraine are completely out of our control, but it should be taken as a reminder of the personal and individual circumstances that we do control.

While it is important to focus on our individual well-being, we can also show support to those who have been affected by this conflict.

The humanity in us should condemn war and appreciate the futility of conflicts.

As Malaysians, we have enough lessons to learn from our own past.

We must acknowledge that relationships can be fragile, and even little things can spark discordance, especially when we are at our most vulnerable.

Despite the distance and the language barrier, several Malaysians have displayed extraordinary humanitarian spirit in reaching out to those suffering in Ukraine.

Paradoxically, that is what crisis and conflicts bring out in us: the desire to reach out to those who need help.

This is an act that helps us reconcile to the fact that while we live in relative comfort and security, there are others in this world who struggle to live for another day.

Remembering to look for the good and not just dwell on the bad, can reaffirm our faith in humanity and sustain our mental well-being.

Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is a consultant psychiatrist, Green Ribbon Group policy advisor and Malaysian Mental Health Association president. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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