How do you actually take care of yourself in traumatic situations? And how do you take care of yourself when you are being bombarded with gruesome images?
There's a program at Drexel University in Philadelphia that answers those questions daily. It's called Healing Hurt People. It's an organization that works to undue the impacts of violence on young people. It helps victims of gunshot, stab, or assault wounds receive counseling for emotional and social stress related to violence and PTSD. Healing Hurt People was the subject of a This American Life feature back in 2013.
We reached out to Dr. John Rich, a co-director of the program, for advice. He gave us five suggestions.
1. Understand that you're not going crazy.
"We have to help young people understand what is happening because they often do not have information about post traumatic stress or the symptoms that occur after a trauma. They're confused and often think they are going crazy. ... These are, in themselves, a kind of normal manifestation of the body's flight or fight mechanism that's gone haywire because of the extreme trauma.
2. Have a safety plan.
You need a strategy to deal with the stress. "A safety plan is a list activities that you can do, some by yourself and some with other people, in case you feel stress and trauma welling up within you. It's pretty individual. For some people it may be deep breathing and meditation. For others it could be prayer. For some people it's really listening to music, or other soothing activities like yoga, or physical activity.
3. Write down that plan. Keep it in your wallet or purse.
"Having those prepared in advance means that when young people encounter a situation that is causing them stress, they have something ready to turn to. Literally, a piece of piece of paper — a laminated card that they carry in their pocket that they can pull out and use and activate in the moment."
4. Monitor your news intake. Or simply stop it.
"Each person needs to make a decision about how news is affecting them. For people who have experienced past trauma, these kinds of recurrent trauma, even indirectly can serve as powerful triggers. So for people who experienced significant stress and trauma, it's especially important that they think very carefully about how much of this news they consume in its most graphic forms.
5. Be very attentive of young adults and children.
"If parents have children who are being exposed to this through social media or television, it's critically important to experience that with children if they are going to be exposed to it at all, to limit it, and to spend time processing what this means. What it means for the world and community, but also reinforcing to children that adults and parents are there in their lives to keep them safe."