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Managing media reporting of tragic events

Vicarious stress is a normal response to repeated exposure and empathetic engagement when in the presence of stress that others are experiencing.
© Monash University 2018. CRICOS No. 00008C

Vicarious stress is a normal response to repeated exposure and empathetic engagement when in the presence of stress that others are experiencing. When extreme and/or prolonged, such as continually witnessing others experiencing trauma, this can lead to vicarious trauma.

While vicarious stress and trauma can be experienced by healthcare professionals, carers and other professions that engage directly with people experiencing stress and trauma, it’s also possible for it to be experienced by people outside those professions, often through media reporting of tragic events.

As noted in compassion for others, increasing evidence indicates that when we feel somebody else’s suffering and discomfort, we experience this suffering as if it were happening to us. This is called ‘empathic resonance’. If we engage with someone else’s discomfort in an unmindful way – for example over-identifying or reacting to it – this can lead to fatigue, stress and burnout.

How can mindfulness help?

Mindfulness can assist us better engage with media reporting of tragic events by helping us to engage with the content in a more mindful way by empathising but not over-identifying with the experience of others, or getting caught in our own reactions to it.

We should notice any feelings and be aware of them in an open but compassionate way, but not identify with or be consumed by them.

We can remain present and grounded in ourselves and also focus on compassion – that is, wishing that the person in the tragic situation be happy and free from suffering and possibly doing something to help them. This extra step of acting or at least wishing to reduce suffering is important as it marks the transition from empathy to compassion and is associated with better mental health outcomes.

Doing so actually reduces activation in areas of the brain associated with stress (e.g. the amygdala) and activates different parts of the brain associated with compassion and positive emotions. Then, the research shows, we don’t become so vulnerable to the same kind of carer fatigue or burnout.

Learning to be present to suffering in a compassionate and nonreactive way while still open to the fact that it’s there, makes it easier to engage in a healthy way with media reporting of other people’s suffering.

Focus on solutions not the problem

Compassion means to focus on solutions, rather than just getting bogged down in the problem. When it comes to applying this to consuming news media, one of the best pieces of advice is from Fred Rogers, host of the popular program Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran for 30 years on PBS in America.

He said that when he was a boy and would see scary things on the TV news “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

For a refresher on managing our levels of compassion and empathy, consider revisiting compassion for others and mindfulness for developing empathy

© Monash University 2018. CRICOS No. 00008C
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