Many folks have been shaken by the news of the horrible shooting of Congressperson, Steve Scalise, in Alexandria Virginia. And even though most people weren’t directly affected, the non-stop coverage from the media has increased the impact of the event and made the story more personal and immediate. It is important to note that a number of recent studies have found positive correlations between extended exposure to tragic reports via the television or the internet and the occurrence of PTSD like symptoms such as nightmares, difficulty concentrating, increased anxiety and recurrent flash backs of disturbing video and still images.
Coupled with other brain research, it is becoming clear that vicarious exposure to trauma can create neuro-pathway damage consistent with what is experienced by deployed soldiers or other trauma victims. This new evidence also provides clues for treating those who are affected by shocking stories in the media.
But first a little background. We have learned that trauma does not have to be physical to be harmful. Emotional trauma can disrupt the bridge between our immediate perceptions and our higher thought processes which allows us to interpret the meaning of our experiences. Without access to one’s neo-cortex, a person is left with only the primitive amygdale to cope with stress and threats. Unlike the more advanced part of our brain, the amygdale’s responses are limited to anger and fear , aggression and flight. In other words, a person who is overwhelmed by trauma experiences panic.
The key to dealing with a PTSD reaction is to calm the panic and restore the neuro-pathways to the parts of our brain which can think and accurately assess the seriousness of the immediate perceptions and discern from prior experience what response should be made.
Fortunately there are several effective tools anyone can employ to reduce the disruptive impact of panic reactions. Here is a brief list of things to try ( in addition to the obvious limiting your exposure to disturbing content) if you are having problems coping with the news:
1) Don’t forget to breath: When things are out of control, it is important to remember that our rate and depth of breathing is something that we can control. In most cases, slowing down our breathing rate and taking in deeper breaths along with slowly and completely exhaling can provide instant relief from panicky sensations.
2) Writing in a journal: Putting into words and describing in the unpleasantness that you are going through shifts the locus of brain activity from the feeling to the thinking part. This shift reduces the intensity of the dysphoria and helps provide a larger and less threatening perspective. It is so effective that the U.S. military uses this technique for its men and women who have undergone traumatic stress.
3) Meditate: Providing brief breaks for you brain, during which time all demand or problem based activity ( thinking , problem solving, worrying over unsolved challenges) ceases , has been shown to heal broken connections and restore more rational thought. (We will talk more about meditation in a future post.)
4. Exercise: Sustained movement (and it doesn’t have to be complicated or gym related) which gets your heart-rate into the aerobic zone for twenty minutes releases endorphins which are group of hormones/neurotransmitters which provides an analgesic effect and contributes to a sense of a wellness and well-being.
5. Talk about it with a therapist: If unpleasant or interfering symptoms persist for more than two weeks, find therapist to talk to. Research shows that the area of the brain, the hippocampus, which among other things converts short-term into long-term memories, helps us to sort out and compare recent experiences with old , is often damaged by emotional trauma. Verbal therapies are very effective in causing traumatized and shrunken areas of the hippocampus to return to their normal size and functioning.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 6 16 2017