Recognising Vicarious Trauma in Social Media Users

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By Vanessa Boachie, Psychological Therapist and Founder of Inside Out Well-being. Find out more about Vanessa here.

We consume more information in a day, than our ancestors did in a lifetime. With growing use of technology and the internet, this has increased the amount of information we are exposed to. 

Researchers have estimated that on average we are inundated with the equivalent of 34 GB (gigabytes) of information a day – enough information to overload a laptop within a week. As helpful as the internet is to keep us up to date with current affairs and facilitate networking opportunities, one of the key downsides are that it has  given the general population unlimited access to images and videos of distressing content; from physical and emotional abuse to violent incidents and dying victims.

Furthermore, the design of popular social media applications such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook give rise to involuntary access to explicit and disturbing content, which many are exposed to without a trigger warning or disclaimer. As a result, individuals may indirectly experience the anguish of those directly experiencing traumatic events. Overtime, this can lead to vicarious trauma.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma occurs when an individual is repeatedly exposed to other’s trauma or stories of traumatic events. 

For many it can feel like they are actually experiencing the event. It can lead to negative consequences on the individual’s mental health such as chronic stress, fear and physical symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress. It is cumulative and builds up over time. It is a process that can significantly change an individual’s view of the world.There is a wealth of research studies that recognise vicarious trauma as a challenge for those in the helping professions e.g. mental health professionals, teachers, prison and probation staff. However, anyone can be affected by vicarious trauma. 

We are now seeing growing research to suggest a link between exposure to distressing online images and videos and traumatic stress. Researchers have found that people who are repeatedly exposed to real-world traumatic material through social media and television, are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, feelings of helplessness, high levels of fear, difficulties with coping and some even reported symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This highlights the detrimental impacts of viewing disturbing content on mental health.

These impacts can be exacerbated if there is shared experience or shared status with those directly experiencing the traumatic event. This explains why many Black people around the world were greatly impacted by the viral footage of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of African American man, George Floyd and suffocating him to death in May 2020. 

This also triggered a mass chain reaction of Black people sharing their experiences of racism and abuse. These conversations emerged from social media to mainstream media, in the workplace, online events and the community, as it resurfaced the Black Lives Matters movement. For many Black people around the world seeing yet another Black person being threatened, physically assaulted and killed by authorities, made  them feel unsafe. 
 

What are the signs of vicarious trauma?

The impacts of vicarious trauma vary from person to person as individuals experience and respond to trauma in different ways. The list below highlights common emotional, behavioural, physical, cognitive and spiritual signs, but is not an exhaustive list:

Emotional 

  • Irritability
  • Frustration
  • Lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness about the victimisation 

Behavioural 

  • Isolation
  • Distancing, numbing and detachment 
  • Difficulty sleeping 

Physical

  • Exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Stomach ulcers

Cognitive

  • Cynicism
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making day to day decisions 

Spiritual

  • Loss of hope
  • Lack of purpose 
  • Reduced connection to others

5 ways to protect yourself and reduce your risk

If you start to notice the signs listed above or other distressing symptoms, here are some tips to try:

  1. Increase self-observation – start by monitoring your symptoms to become more aware of where you are emotionally, cognitively and behaviourally. Take time out to reflect and build self-awareness. This helps with identifying your triggers so you can work towards reducing them.
     
  2. Manage your social media experience – for many people social media can trigger unwanted emotions, you can limit your time away from the trigger by turning off notifications or muting triggering words and phrases to create a healthier online experience.
     
  3. Engage in relaxing and self-soothing activities – choose activities that engage your physical and mental health. Using meditation to relax or exercise can be emotionally restorative 
     
  4. Connect with others - recognise that you are not alone and share your concerns with someone you trust. This can create opportunities to express feelings and reduce isolation.
     

Get professional support - There are support groups and charities available to help you. Check out Spark & Co’s resource page to find support that caters to your individual needs.