‘Vicarious trauma’ takes toll on many Americans’ mental health

‘Vicarious trauma’ takes a toll on many Americans’ mental health

(CNN) - From the pandemic to mass shootings and racial injustice, many Americans have been exposed to violence, fear and anger in the past year. If not directly then through social media or stories on the news.

It can all take a toll on your mental health.

“Even just us regular people, people just sitting on a couch listening to these stories are actually having the experience, secondary, as if they were involved in the trauma,” Sheryl Ziegler, a Denver-area therapist, said.

It’s called vicarious trauma and it can trigger troubled sleep, increased feelings of depression, heightened anxiety, fear and anger.

“It really is impacting our mental health,” Ziegler said. “But because it didn’t happen firsthand, sometimes people aren’t connecting that all of this trauma going on around us is actually impacting us to a really significant level.”

To cope, Ziegler said you should identify the source of your feelings and think about your past.

“When you have a sense of your own trauma history, you know your vulnerabilities to things that go on around you,” Ziegler said.

From there, Ziegler said find ways to reduce stress, like deep breathing and exercising, in order to try and distance yourself from those feelings.

Ziegler said it’s also important to get help from others.

“That could be through connecting with others who maybe talk about other things or bring you joy and don’t necessarily bring up these stressors,” Ziegler said. “It could be professional help, if you find you’re really going through some anxiety or depression.”

Vicarious trauma can be long-lasting with each exposure accumulating inside you. Ziegler said simply knowing this type of trauma exists and that others experience it too can help.

Ziegler said there’s also another symptom of vicarious trauma that swings the opposite way called compassion fatigue, where you’re tired of the stories or no longer have compassion. She said that’s something to be aware of as well.

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