During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that many of us are glued to our screens, scrolling through what can seem like endless newsfeeds, updates and headlines relating to the current crisis. Social media is now a window into current events all across the world, and when everyone’s attention is on one topic, it is understandable that consumers might reach ‘information overload’.
At Amnesty International we have extensive experience of dealing with traumatic stories and images – unfortunately this comes with the job of exposing human rights abuses. But experiencing these stories and images can cause what specialists call ‘vicarious trauma’, where we can feel real personal emotional responses to what we are viewing on our screens, even when it hasn’t directly happened to us. While vicarious trauma is a worst case scenario, it’s very normal for everyone to be feeling some emotional distress at the moment, and we need to be aware of that and take care of ourselves and others.
If you are exposed to upsetting material your brain has the capacity to experience feelings of distress similar to those you would experience had you been there. Human brains are wired to try to protect us from anything that might be a threat to our safety, and when we see something shocking, our brains decide very quickly whether we are safe or whether we need to react. Chemicals like cortisol are released in the body to ready us for action. We sometimes call this response ‘fight, flight or freeze’. When experienced in everyday life, they can make us feel panicked, stressed, and unwell.
Just as Amnesty understands the need to mitigate the impact of viewing distressing material, everyone needs to look after themselves in this digital age when they have been exposed to disturbing or upsetting content for long periods at a time. While it’s good to keep in mind that each person is different, and will find different coping mechanisms helpful, here are some suggestions that might work for you:
Recognise the problem
It can be easy to dismiss signs that you are being affected by emotional distress but if you feel that your mood and behaviour are shifting because you’re consuming material which is making you worried, angry or stressed, give yourself the space you need to acknowledge this. Allow yourself time to process your experiences.
There are lots of online resources which you might find helpful – here is just one with lots of advice on how to look after your mental wellbeing when you’re consuming a barrage of difficult material: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yZrcCFpp2o
Talk it over
Connect with people you trust and let them know how you’re feeling. The chances are many people will be feeling similar, and it may help to chat with a friend, colleague or family member so that you can share your fears and worries with them.
Take steps to look after your sleep
This could be a great time to keep that resolution to yourself to stop taking your phone to bed – this has been reported as helping you sleep better.
Another good tip is to try to make sure you’re getting enough sleep in general. It’s easy to stay up late streaming your favourite series, but it can be really beneficial to try to keep to a regular sleep routine and get 8 hours of sleep a night.
Give yourself a time out
We all need to take a screen break from time to time as this is so important for our general wellbeing. But this doesn’t just mean a break from your inbox, it can also apply to the amount of time you are spending online reading the news in general. Instead of just reading short social media posts and the latest headlines, it could be beneficial to set aside some time to read one or two well-researched articles every week.
You could also take some time out for meditation or other calming techniques such as these:
Grounding is a technique that helps to get your mind and body working together in the here and now, and is useful when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
You could start by trying any combination of the following:
- Focus for five seconds on five objects you can see around you
- Focus on the contact your body makes with your chair and/or the floor
- Hold a hot or cold drink in both hands and fully feel the hot or cold temperature
- Smell a food or flower or other item
- Splash water on your face
- Say your name, age, where you are now and where you will be later in the day out loud
- Focus your attention on sounds, first those near you, then those further away and outside the room
You can also try a technique called ‘attention switching’. This is not the same as trying to suppress a thought or emotion, but involves switching attention between alternatives.
If you would like to try this, just bring to mind an image that makes you feel safe, connected or protected. Make it a conscious process as you switch between the image and the one you are struggling with. Talk to yourself as you switch! Remember this is not an exercise to block out your experience, but to help you exert control over it.
Take a breather
Focusing on your breathing can help to calm and regulate your bodily reactions and give you a sense of being anchored. There are many simple breathing techniques which you can use to help yourself feel calmer. Here are just a few for you to try:
- 7-11 breathing – breathe in to the count of seven and out to the count of eleven and repeat until you begin to feel more in control.
- 3 step breathing – prepare yourself by closing or lowering your eyes and noticing the contact your body makes with the floor and the chair. Notice your feet and your back and shift into a position that feels alert and dignified
- Step 1 – notice and name the mood you are in. Notice and name any feelings that are present. Notice and acknowledge any sensations in your body.
- Step 2 – focus all of your attention onto your breathing. Track each breath as it enters the body, moves down into the belly and up and out of the body. Continue for a minute or so just tracking your breath.
- Step 3 – expand your awareness to your whole body, as if you’re breathing out through the pores of your skin.
To come out of the breathing space, notice once more the contact your body makes with the chair and your feet on the floor. Allow the light to begin to filter through your eyelids and gradually lift your eyelids to allow the outside world back in.
Remember that you are not powerless
One of the most important things we can do in these uncertain times is to remember that whenever the headlines make us feel helpless in the face of the current crisis, there are steps we can take to look after ourselves. If we all take some time to talk to others, give ourselves a break, and recognise when we are feeling overwhelmed, we will stay stronger and healthier. Now is the time to come together and ensure that our mental wellbeing remains strong during this global pandemic.
Download resources on vicarious trauma.