When we bear witness to tragic events from afar, whether it’s through social media or via cable news, it’s easy to forget self-care.
That’s especially relevant this week, with the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and five Dallas Police officers (with seven others wounded).
Outrage, grief and demands for change followed, due in large part to the fact that these three events were documented in a series of videos from bystanders and loved ones — and they spread quickly and widely across the internet. But while there’s little research on the Mental Health effects of seeing these injustices via digital means, it introduces a new kind of Trauma — and it’s crucial to take the proper steps to cope.
“Seeing these images can be very upsetting,” says Monnica Williams, associate professor at the University of Louisville and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities. “They’re disturbing, and I think, particularly for people of color, it can make you feel like the world is not a safe place for you.”
For black people, who are disproportionately targeted in cases of police brutality, Williams says there are layers of trauma beyond individual experiences — the cultural memory of ongoing abuses over the last several hundred years.
“Even with some distance … it’s hard not to put yourself in that position.”
“We have cultural trauma and historical trauma and Community trauma — and all of these things contribute to a person’s sense of traumatization and symptoms they might have … It’s the whole thing we’re immersed in,” she says.
In general, when you relate to someone in these videos or it triggers something you care about, it will likely have an impact on you and your mental health.
“Even with some distance, when you identify with people — whether it’s people who are law officers or people who get pulled over for traffic violations — it’s hard not to put yourself in that position,” says Dr. Sarah Vinson, psychiatrist and senior editor for Ourselves Black, a mental health resource for the black community.
Self-care today, friends. Whatever that means for you. Protect your heart, body and mind. You don’t owe anyone your time or energy here.
— ☔️ April ☔️ (@ReignOfApril) July 6, 2016
“You can feel threatened yourself,” she adds. “In this era, when any event can be broadcast anywhere in the world, multiple times, that distance that used to be there isn’t there in the same way.”
But there are ways to acknowledge that and find healthy outlets to move forward. Here are seven steps you can take to Engage in self-care.
1. Talk to someone supportive.
Williams says it’s essential to seek out supportive people you can talk to. As a psychologist and a therapist, she says there are many benefits to talking to a professional, but it can also just be a supportive friend or family member.
“Talking about it can help a person process it.”
“Talking about it can help a person process it and make meaning out of it and move on, rather than getting stuck in that bad place,” she says.
But the key word is “supportive” — if someone is dismissive or can’t empathize, it can result in compounded trauma.
“Sometimes people just want to talk, and just getting it out by itself is helpful — but that’s not always true if you’re not talking to the right person,” Vinson says. “Talking to people who will be validating, supportive and who will attend to you will help you feel better.”
2. Follow these resources on self-care.
Are you hydrated? Have you eaten in the past three hours? Do you feel paralyzed by indecision? This creative-commons self-care guide, popular among activist circles, asks these types of questions — relevant but not exclusive to trauma — and provides tangible ways to tackle them. It’s available as a printable PDF here.
This guide, from blogger Jasmine Banks, is also an excellent resource specifically for people of color to engage in self-care after psychological trauma.
3. Monitor your media intake.
As videos of Police Shootings proliferate social media feeds and mainstream news, be mindful about what you consume. Seeing graphic images and footage repeatedly can be particularly affecting.
“Maybe you don’t want to bury your head in the sand, and be part of the dialogue and be aware of what’s going on, but you can still be selective about when you put that in front of your eyes,” Vinson says.
She refers back to Sept. 11, when research found a correlation between watching disturbing footage repeatedly and clinically diagnosable stress responses.
“If you’re watching these videos and reading these stories over and over again … that is going to adversely impact how you feel,” she says.
4. Know it’s OK to take a step back.
I think there’s a difference btwn not watching video of someone being murdered for self care vs pretending it didn’t happen @djhairston1827
— Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh) July 7, 2016
While Twitter and Facebook allow you to find a sense of community and fight isolation, the internet can also breed abuse — and navigating that can be especially tricky when posting about potentially polarizing issues.
“There are a lot of awful, horrible, hurtful things people say, particularly behind the cloak of the internet,” Williams says. “So, I discourage people from reading those things and engaging folks. But on the other hand, I’ve seen people who write very responsible, intelligent and helpful things … and hats off to them, because I think we do also need the voice of reason out there.”
“It’s not that you can’t look away from a graphic video — it’s that you need to not look away from social injustices.”
That said, if a friend or even a stranger online says you need to see the videos to understand the severity of the situation, and urges you not to look away, you can navigate that as well. Not everyone, especially the black community, needs to see these instances — they likely already understand.
“The question is, what is it that you don’t need to look away from?” Vinson says. “It’s not that you can’t look away from a graphic video — it’s that you need to not look away from social injustices and racism … Not everyone needs to watch a video to be a part of the solution.”
It’s all about gauging how things affect you and acting accordingly. Others may choose to watch these videos for a variety of reasons. Understand that not only are you not obligated to watch these videos, you’re also not obligated to speak about them in ways that makes you uncomfortable, just because you feel it’s expected of you.
“If you want to engage in some active confrontation, I think it’s better to engage with people individually, rather than just sort of putting everything out there for the whole world,” Williams says. “I think it’s more effective when you talk to people directly.”
5. You know what helps you — make the time for it.
Think back to coping mechanisms you’ve used in the past and put special emphasis on them.
“Something that I’ve noticed in my work with people is that they usually know what helps them,” Vinson says. “They just talk themselves out of [doing] it on a regular basis, or don’t prioritize it.”
Her advice is that whatever you’ve determined works for you, make the time for it. If that’s something that usually seems like a leisure activity, like exercise or expressing yourself through art, now see it as a necessity.
6. Fight feelings of helplessness.
Just because you may not engage on a grand scale, that doesn’t mean you can’t take action. One of the worst things about trauma, Vinson explains, is that it can make people feel hopeless or without a sense of agency.
If you’re able to do good in some way, in spite of widespread negativity, it can help you cope.
“I think most people have … an avenue where they can be an agent of change.”
“I think most people have … an avenue where they can be an agent of change,” Vinson says. “All of us in our lives have things that we can do to make our pocket of the world brighter.”
For instance, you can learn about your community’s policing accountability procedures and work to make them better, or learn more about best practices for using your phone to record police violence safely and effectively. You can also find out what organizers are doing in your community and help to fill the gaps. Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of organizations doing the work.
It doesn’t always have to relate directly to the matter at hand, either. Contributing to your community in any shape or form can help you relocate yourself in a society that feels like it’s failing you.
“I think each person needs to do a careful examination of their own beliefs, attitudes and feelings, and say, ‘What can I do to move forward as a human being?'” Wilson says.
7. Don’t resort to ‘all-or-none’ thinking.
When emotions are high, Vinson says people can resort to “all-or-none” thinking, which she says “robs us of our commonalities and the humanity in the other side.” In other words, you should avoid blanket statements about specific groups of people, even though it’s natural to forget nuance when you feel threatened.
Guard against those tendencies and leave make room for genuine, thoughtful discourse.
“The reality is, we as a society are going to have to work together to make these things better,” she says. “And I think it’s going to take people with different perspectives and from different backgrounds at the table to do that.”
Additional reporting by Katie Dupere.
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