Safe Haven Counselling
Symbolic image on the subject of war refugees from Ukraine

Vicarious Trauma & Empathic Distress: The Impact of Global Crises on Our Mental Health

In a world interconnected by technology, the distressing news of violence in the Ukraine and Gaza reaches us in real-time, often leaving us with a wide range of experiences in response. As Global onlookers, we may be conflicted in our emotions, both grateful for our ability to move freely in the world, while also distraught and helpless as we see horrific images in the media. We may find ourselves in a position of privilege, which cam lead to feelings of guilt. The idea of taking care of ourselves in the midst of these global events can feel self indulgent and egoistic, however the reality is that we feel the weight of this global pain and we are all impacted. Our emotional responses cannot be ignored. in fact, they may be fuel for action that supports change.

The Psychological Impact on Observers

Empathic Distress

As human beings, our capacity for empathy allows us to connect with others’ pain and suffering, but this empathic resonance, especially when it’s continuous and overwhelming, can lead to empathic distress. Watching the harrowing images and reading the heart-wrenching stories of civilians caught in the crossfire of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the war in the Ukraine can evoke feelings of deep sadness and frustration. This is compounded by the perception of our inability to directly influence the situation, intensifying feelings of helplessness.

Vicarious Traumatization

As we keep up to date with conflicts, we are witnessing not just military confrontations, but also the devastating impact on civilian populations: the loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods, and the deep psychological scars left on survivors. These images and narratives can affect our mental health and worldview, and can lead to a form of trauma response. Symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks of the distressing media content, heightened anxiety, and even avoidance behaviours, where individuals may withdraw from any related news to escape the psychological discomfort. Although not everyone will experience PTSD from media exposure, for some, the vivid and relentless nature of modern news coverage can etch the trauma of distant conflicts into their psyche with surprising intensity.

Sense of Hopelessness

The complex and enduring nature of the Israel-Hamas and Ukraine conflicts, with their historical, political, and cultural dimensions, can contribute to a profound sense of hopelessness. As observers, the cyclical pattern of violence and the seeming intractability of the issues involved can lead to a pessimistic outlook, making us question the possibility of peace and resolution, as well as the goodness of humanity.

Coping Mechanisms and Strategies

While we cannot control global events, we can manage our response to them and use our distress to help alleviate suffering. Here are some strategies to mitigate the psychological impact:

Controlled Media Exposure

Be mindful of your media consumption and understand its potential impact. If you notice you are experiencing symptoms indicative of PTSD, you may want to seek support from a mental health professional. Through awareness and appropriate interventions, we can reduce the psychological toll that witnessing global atrocities can exert, even from afar. Staying informed is important, but it’s also crucial to recognize when the news is taking a toll on your mental health.

Constructive Actions

  1. Humanitarian Aid: Individuals can contribute to or volunteer with reputable humanitarian organizations providing relief to conflict zones. These organizations often provide food, medical aid, shelter, and educational support to those displaced or impacted by the war. organizations such as The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Save the Children, and The United Way are all responding to the needs of civilians in the Middle East.
  2. Advocacy and Awareness: Advocacy and awareness are invaluable tools that empower individuals and communities to make a tangible difference. Advocacy might mean engaging with lawmakers to promote peace policies, organizing community rallies to draw attention to the crisis, or supporting legal efforts to uphold human rights and international laws. Through advocacy, individuals can exert influence on policy decisions, mobilize public opinion, and hold stakeholders accountable. Awareness, on the other hand, focuses on educating the public about the nuances of the conflict. It’s about humanizing the issue by sharing stories from those directly affected, countering misinformation with factual, unbiased information, and fostering open dialogue to break down prejudices and misunderstandings. By raising awareness, we can shed light on the realities of the conflict, encouraging empathy, understanding, and action.
  3. Political Engagement: Citizens can engage with their political representatives to advocate for foreign policies that support conflict resolution and humanitarian aid. By voting, petitioning, and participating in peaceful protests, we can influence our country’s stance on the conflict.
  4. Support for Refugees: The plight of refugees is one of the most pressing humanitarian crises arising from global conflict. Innocent civilians are often forced to flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs, seeking safety and a chance to rebuild their lives. There are several ways we can extend our support to refugees, including donating to refugee aid organizations and volunteering. Local refugee resettlement agencies often need help with various tasks, from teaching language classes and helping with job applications to offering transportation and emotional support.

Seek Professional Help

As always, if feelings of distress, hopelessness, or vicarious traumatization become overwhelming, it’s crucial to seek professional help. Mental health professionals can provide the necessary support to navigate these emotional landscapes. Taking care of our mental health is not just a personal responsibility; it’s a collective necessity in our interdependent world.