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How to maintain your mental health during traumatic world events

These days it feels like the phrase “everything, everywhere, all at once” describes what, where and when the world is going mad. The COVID-19 pandemic continues, the cost-of-living crisis drives food and housing costs up, environmental disasters keep on coming, and through it all, your smartphone delivers unexpected, unfiltered, images of violent, traumatic events directly to your eyes via news feeds and social media, wherever and whenever you pick it up.It’s a lot – and it can be very hard to bear.

It’s not easy to stay centred and calm amid difficult global events and crisis – and, in fact, experiencing the horrific stories and images coming out of Israel and Gaza and other areas of conflict around the world can cause people to experience something called secondary, or vicarious, trauma.

Vicarious trauma is when people experience symptoms of trauma as a result of seeing or hearing about traumatic events happening to others. This can translate into feelings of grief, anxiety, depression and helplessness, and even physical symptoms, such as stomach aches and headaches.

In an recent appearance on CBC Radio, health columnist Mary Jane Hampton said “bearing witness can have profound mental health effects,” with vicarious trauma affecting up to one in four people who witness a traumatic event. The more exposure someone has increases the likelihood they’ll feel the ill effects; shared identity, pre-existing PTSD and being a woman can also increase how severely someone is affected. Vicarious trauma can affect up to one in four people, and prolonged exposure can cause a surge in requests for mental health supports.

Here are some ways to protect yourself and your mental health during stressful world events.

Install and maintain your own filters
Be intentional about how, how long, and when you interact with the news and social media so that you can limit your exposure to traumatic content. Use reputable news sources and brush up on how to avoid misinformation and disinformation. Set time limits – and enforce them – to keep yourself from getting sucked into internet rabbit holes. Turn off autoplay on videos and consider adjusting the settings in your social media apps to hide graphic photos, videos and keywords. This is a key way to prevent yourself from getting emotionally overloaded.

Be compassionate toward yourself
Being affected by the suffering of others isn’t a weakness – it’s empathy at work. But overdosing on human suffering via social media isn’t helpful to anyone. Giving yourself secondary trauma or empathetic burnout just makes everything harder. Don’t feel badly about turning off your phone or the news to seek out the comfort of human companionship.

Remember you aren’t alone
Have you ever heard the old saying, “Happiness shared is happiness doubled; sadness shared is a burden halved”? In times like this, it’s more important than ever to seek support from friends and loved ones – spend time together on quiet, creative or outdoor pursuits to recharge your spirits. If you’re really struggling, get professional support – there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Do something positive
Sometimes it feels impossible to make a difference to global affairs, but small actions can have a big impact on how you feel. Attending a protest, writing to your Member of Parliament, or donating to an aid organization are all ways to make a difference. If that feels too abstract, consider donating to or volunteering for a local cause – there is no shortage of local charities that would benefit from your time and energy.

Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line toll-free at 1-888-429-8167 or dial 911. Children and youth can also call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

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