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  • Writer's pictureVeha Pandya

War news and Vicarious Trauma

Trigger warnings: Russia-Ukraine war, war news, trauma, vicarious trauma, anxiety, compassion fatigue.

The breakout of a full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine in the recent month has had far-reaching consequences beyond the geopolitical spaces of the two countries. The war is no longer confined to the battleground. It is has infiltrated our personal spaces, it has encroached on our personal devices such as our tablets, smartphones and television screens, our dinner table conversation and even perhaps our psyches. The technological advancements of the 21st Century have ensured that war news reaches us in real-time, in high definition and complete with an audio-visual feed. We see the cries of children separated from their fathers at the borders, we see the dilapidated buildings, we see the devastation and destruction that missiles have left in their wake and we see the bodies of those who have fallen to the war. Despite being physically removed from the war, the war news is reaching us with such a sense of immediacy and urgency that it almost feels like we are part of the carnage.


Description of image: Person hoding the tv remote while switching to a news channel

This relentless onslaught of war news puts us at great risk for what we refer to as Vicarious trauma. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term vicarious trauma, vicarious trauma is second-hand trauma that occurs as a result of witnessing an intensely painful, threatening or distressing event or situation that would otherwise be considered traumatic for those directly experiencing the event. In other words, it is a trauma response that occurs in the absence of direct exposure to traumatic stimuli. Vicarious trauma has previously been documented among emergency response providers, doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, policemen, social workers and mental health professionals who are bystanders to traumatic events such as war, violence, accidents, fires, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks.

Any kind of trauma, be it first-hand trauma or vicarious trauma impacts us at a deep psychological and physiological level. Some of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma include intrusive thoughts of the traumatic event, experiencing flashbacks of traumatic images, lingering feelings of anxiety, panic, restlessness, the sensation of emotional numbness, feeling detached from others, sleep disturbances, and feelings of pessimism, helplessness or hopelessness and so on. It may even cognitively impact us by altering our worldviews and beliefs about others such as “The world is a dangerous place.” or “People are cruel and heartless”. These signs occur because trauma is a body in shock and a mind-body stuck in self-preservation or survival.

The way that trauma impacts the mind and body is primarily through the nervous system. Direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event or situation activates the sympathetic nervous system which sends our body into hyperarousal or mobilization, commonly understood as the fight or flight response. Alternatively, if the content of the traumatic incident is immensely distressing, the parasympathetic nervous system may get activated leading our body to go into hypoarousal or immobilization leading to the freeze response. A person experiencing the freeze response may feel low, detached, disconnected and fatigued.

In the context of war news consumption, a person in fight mode might actively engage by consuming more war news and engaging in activism such as raising funds, donating money to the cause of the war or amplifying war stories by resharing news. While a person experiencing the flight response may start to avoid any kind of war news coming on their news feed as a way of coping with their distress. Avoidance is an important coping strategy in response to something that is extremely triggering and anxiety-provoking. Whereas a person in freeze mode may consume war news but leave feeling numb and detached from their feelings.

At the brain level, trauma sometimes creates a disconnect between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala - the thinking and feeling parts of our brain. This may result in individuals seemingly processing at a cognitive level but not truly feeling the horrific nature of the traumatic events. That’s not all - experiencing trauma also greatly reduces our cognitive capacities. Our brains undergoing trauma enter into survival mode which means that they conserve the energy that is expended on cognitive tasks and high order thinking skills such as reasoning and judgement are put on the backburner. This results in shorter attention spans, difficulties in focusing on novel or substantial chunks of information and reduced retention power in assimilating information. In such a state, it is common for us to passively consume information through mindless online scrolling, consume shorter pieces of online content such as Instagram reels, youtube shorts or TikToks or even go back to rewatching tried and tested television shows and movies. The mental strain caused by vicarious trauma can also cause our overall productivity levels to falter at work or school.

Further, because our minds are reserving mental energy, our brain sometimes operates in terms of heuristics or mental shortcuts. Let’s take for example a conversation I was having with a fellow empath. She said that she took comfort in the fact that the Ukrainian president’s name was Volodymyr. On further probing, she revealed that his name bore resemblance to the villain in the cult fiction series Harry Potter (read Voldemort) and that she believed that only he could stop the fight against the Dictator Putin. As trauma-informed therapists, we’re trained to pay attention to the automatic associations that our clients make. Such automatic associations serve as rich data to understand the client’s state of mind. I was curious and thought more about why her brain made this connection. Then it came forth to me that Lord Voldemort and the Russian president Vladimir Putin share many similarities:

  • They both created an in-group and an out-group: pure-bloods and mudbloods, Russians and Ukrainians.

  • They both granted themselves positions of high power: Voldemort gave himself the title of Lord, while Putin has been the Russian president with no definitive end to his term in sight.

  • They both mobilised large forces and crushed any resistance through the use of brute force.

  • Loyalty to their cause is rooted in fear and not respect.

  • They both demonstrate a complete lack of remorse or empathy for their victims.

  • They both show an inability to accept defeat.

  • There is an unhealthy focus on power: Voldemort wanted to be seen as the most powerful wizard. While Putin wants his country Russia to be seen as powerful under his leadership on the world stage.

Therefore, in this way, by making this quick mental connection of placing Putin and Voldemort in the same category, my friend's brain was making sense of an extremely distressing war situation. She was using information she already had in her long-term memory to make meaning of a new, terrifying and actively developing war situation.

Closely associated with vicarious trauma, is the experience of Compassion fatigue wherein individuals experience extreme emotional and physical exhaustion or burnout as a result of absorbing a lot of the terrible war news and deeply empathising with the plight of those directly impacted by the war. So if you are feeling exhausted or drained after seeing the news and can’t pinpoint why, this could be one of the possible reasons.

If you found this article relatable, you may be experiencing vicarious trauma. Some steps that can be taken to combat this:

  • Keep to a routine with consistent sleep and wake-up times.

  • Taking well-deserved breaks from the news.

  • Staying abreast with the news by reading headlines and staying informed with just the highlights without delving deep into the news stories.

  • Setting aside a specific block of time to engage with news and current events.

  • Being mindful to focus on a single task at a time instead of juggling multiple tasks.

  • Showing self-compassion towards yourself for the drop in your productivity levels. Your mind and body are battling with an unprecedented war situation. Therefore, it is helpful to cut yourself some slack.

  • Engaging in some form of self-care. Self-care could mean different things for different people. Some suggestions for self-care include engaging in a hobby, listening to music, watching a feel-good show or movie, engaging in some form of physical activity, etc.

  • Spend time doing activities that predominantly relaxing and calming such as meditating, deep breathing, spending time in nature or playing with a pet.

  • Reach out to your social support systems such as friends, family, co-workers or even a mental health professional if you are feeling anxious and overwhelmed with current events.

  • Resources for working with secondary or vicarious trauma.

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