When The News is Triggering: Coping with Trauma in the News 

October 16, 2018

“No news is good news.” It’s a familiar enough phrase, and one that I’ve heard in increasing numbers over the last few weeks. Between accounts of natural disasters, sexual assault, child abuse and maltreatment in detention centers and violence against racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation and gender minorities, there is more than enough going on in the world to lead one to feel anxious and sad. These emotions and reactions, along with a number of other thoughts and feelings, are challenging enough to cope with. For people who have survived a trauma, this barrage of information can be particularly overwhelming and can result in feelings of hopelessness, despair, paralyzing fear, and rage at the people and systems who commit or condone violence.

What is trauma and how can it affect people?

A traumatic experience can mean a number of different things, from being a victim of some form of abuse or life-threatening situation to witnessing any event where a person’s life or physical safety is threatened or where sexual violence occurs. Many people report few symptoms or are able to bounce back relatively quickly after experiencing a trauma. And while resilience is our natural tendency as humans, some people find that the typical course of healing goes astray and many symptoms remain. This persistence of symptoms is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD symptoms, including nightmares, upsetting memories of the event, avoiding reminders of the trauma, and increased depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, and irritability or anger, can remain with a person for a long time, even many years, after the initial traumatic event is over. These longer lasting symptoms can interfere with our lives and prevent people from achieving some of the goals that may be most important to them, including performing well at work or school, or forming close and trusting connections with friends and loved ones.

How do trauma and substance use relate?

We know that the relationship between the two works in both directions: people who have trauma histories are more likely to misuse substances as a way of treating their emotional distress, and people who misuse substances may be more likely to experience a traumatic event due to their use. Recent studies indicate that almost half of patients with PTSD also met criteria for a substance use disorder, and 75% of people who have a substance use disorder have experienced a trauma during their lives. Additionally, many people who abuse substances may have underlying factors, such as a tendency to experience more negative emotions or a tendency to avoid unpleasant emotions, that may lead to a person to develop PTSD.

While substance use may help alleviate the symptoms associated with trauma in the short term by helping a person avoid experiencing their distress, this avoidance interferes with the natural recovery from trauma.

What should I do if the news is reminding me of my own trauma?

While many of us would like to protect ourselves from the feelings associated with traumatic events, the reality is that sometimes we cannot avoid our feelings and sometimes it may not be helpful to avoid them. This is especially true when the news cycles are reminders of one’s particular trauma. When these reminders interfere with your daily life, these five tips can help you to cope in the moment.

  1. Check in with yourself. Identify what you are feeling in this moment- are you angry? Sad? Scared? Ashamed? Before you can cope with the situation and your emotions, you need to know what you’re feeling. It can be helpful to write down what you’re experiencing.
  2. Ask yourself what your goal is in this moment. Are you at work and have a big project you need to finish? Do you have a paper that is due tomorrow for school? Are you at a party with people who you don’t know very well? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (or something similar), now is probably not the best time to act on any emotions you may be feeling or launch into a heated discussion of whatever event was triggering. Instead, focus on your goal in the moment, turn off notifications on your news sources and social media, even delete those apps from your phone if you need to! Don’t watch the news or read the newspaper. It’s OK to step away from something triggering for a short period of time (especially if it’s not a good time for you to engage with it!).
  3. If your emotions are especially intense and overwhelming or you are feeling disconnected from your body or your emotions, give yourself some time to take a break and take care of yourself. That can look like a lot of different things for different people … do you need to self-soothe with a bubble bath and some herbal tea? Watch your favorite comedy show and have a good hard laugh? Remind yourself of the people in the world who are fighting for the rights and dignity of all people? Whatever your go-to ways of coping with distress are, now is the time to use them. You can’t help others or meet your own goals if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
  4. Reach out for support from trusted friends or family members. You don’t need to talk about your trauma, and it is your choice with whom you share this information. You can ask to talk about whatever you would like or request whatever support would be useful – a dinner to catch up, a walk in the park, a hug.
  5. If you’re in a place where you can notice your emotions but are not completely overwhelmed by them, this can actually be a great time to figure out how you can address the problem itself. Our emotions are an important source of information, and they can drive us to useful action. Are you concerned about the way immigrants, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, or survivors of sexual assault are being treated? See if there’s a way that you can contribute to one of these causes, whether by donating, volunteering, or figuring out how you can support change in your own community.

What if this list isn’t enough?

There are a number of effective, evidence-based treatments for treating PTSD and the long-term effects of trauma, as well asa number of trained and compassionate clinicians who are available to provide these treatments. Look for clinicians who have training and experience in working with survivors of trauma and who will believe your story and support you on your path to healing and reclaiming your life.

Healing from the effects of trauma can be a difficult and emotional process, and those emotions can be intensified when the news reminds you of your own trauma. While following these tips do not replace treatment for PTSD, they can help you to ride out the most challenging moments and act in line with your values, even in the midst of triggering news cycles.

Share this post: