Coping with the psychological effects of recent violence in the news

by Chad Buck, Ph.D., Work/Life Connections psychologist


Social media and news coverage of recent shootings, bombings, protests, sexual assaults and other events has been graphic and intense. In general, experiencing violence can result in serious psychological distress, including depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While people may not develop a psychological disorder after hearing firsthand accounts or viewing graphic, real-time images of these events, they can experience strong emotions, such as fear, sadness, grief and anger.

The more similar one is to the person or people experiencing an event, the more likely it is that the person indirectly involved will develop a strong reaction. When crimes are reported in news coverage or shared through the immediacy of social media, many groups of people may see someone with whom they identify being accused of criminal behavior, perpetrating a crime, or experiencing a violent act. The more a person is reminded of years of discrimination, bias or prejudice, the more likely it is that there will be significant stress or distress. “That could be me” turns into “That is me!”

Studying the indirect effects of violence in general is a relatively new endeavor. Even fewer studies focus on the unique effects of racially motivated violence or hate crimes on psychological distress. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Connecticut, described race-based stress reactions in an interview with the New York Times in June 2015. She stated that race-based stress is “a natural byproduct of the types of experiences that minorities have to deal with on a regular basis.”

Williams went on to describe the prevailing symptoms that may be experienced as “depression, intrusion (the inability to get the thoughts about what happened out of one’s mind), vigilance (an inability to sleep out of fear of danger), anger, loss of appetite, apathy, avoidance symptoms and emotional numbing.” These symptoms are quite similar to symptoms of PTSD. Even if the reported violence has never been directly experienced, a person may have heard stories about or know people within their families or communities who have. Williams refers to this as “cultural knowledge” and notes that it primes people from minority groups to experience a unique kind of reaction and possible secondary PTSD.

It is much more common, however, for people to have feelings of sadness, worry or anger in the aftermath of violence, be it racially motivated or other. These normal reactions and feelings are to be expected, and they are not a sign of some sort of pathology. Dealing with the emotional toll of seeing and hearing information about race-based violence or hate crimes can be overwhelming and exhausting. It is important to be aware of various coping skills and avenues for support in order to prevent normal stress reactions from becoming potential psychological disorders.

Recommendations for coping include:

Engage your support network. This may be a friend, family member, spiritual leader or other trusted individual in your life. You want someone who will not minimize your feelings or thoughts and who allows you to process how you feel without judgment or an agenda.

Decrease exposure to news and social media coverage of the event. It is important to stay informed, but attempt to limit your time in contact with the issue until you feel better able to manage your reactions. Reactions are normal, but you need a break from them.

Engage in positive self-care. Prioritize rest, exercise and healthy eating to help your body deal with stress. Do activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Try to limit alcohol consumption or problematic behaviors (e.g., overeating, reckless spending, gambling) as a way to soothe your feelings.

Write about your experience. Writing is a useful way of focusing and organizing the random thoughts that may be overwhelming you. Handwriting tends to be more effective than typing, but whatever gives you relief is the key.

Get involved. Engaging in positive activities like group discussions, campus events, spiritual activities or positive community action can help channel your reactions and offer opportunities to engage likeminded people.

Seek professional support. Seeing a therapist is not the answer for everyone, but having someone with expertise in managing trauma responses and supporting healthy coping skills can provide significant relief in a short amount of time.

Resources at Vanderbilt

For faculty and staff:

• Work/Life Connections-Employee Assistance Program (WLC-EAP): (615) 936-1327

For students:

• Psychological and Counseling Center: (615) 322-2571
• Center for Student Wellbeing: (615) 322-0480

Additional campus and Medical Center resources:

• The Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center: (615) 343-0071
• The K.C. Potter Center, Office of LGBTQI Life: (615) 322-3330
• Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center: (615) 322-4843
• Project Safe Center for Vanderbilt University: (615) 322-SAFE (7233)
• International Student and Scholar Services: (615) 322-2753
• Social Justice and Identity: (615) 322-6400
• Office of the University Chaplin and Religious Life: (615) 322-2457
• Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Pastoral Care: (615) 343-3535