A mindful approach to witnessing human trauma
“We feel obligated to consume, otherwise it looks like we don’t care about what’s going on in the world.” – Sanam Hafeez, Ph.D.
If it feels selfish not to dedicate time to thinking about the horrors others are experiencing in distant parts of the globe…
If you find yourself hooked on scrolling through the latest atrocity and corresponding social media responses right up until bedtime and first thing when you get up…
If you can’t imagine the possibility of being at peace while the word is in chaos…
…it may be time to employ mindfulness to ensure that your perspective is balanced and that your actions are truly helpful.Experts agree that when our focus on traumatic news cycles becomes obsessive, it undermines our psychological wellbeing. Click To Tweet
Experts agree that when our focus on traumatic news cycles becomes obsessive, it undermines our psychological wellbeing. “Doomscrolling,” the obsessive habit of scrolling through bad news and depressing social media, is an unhealthy coping mechanism many of us use to deal with anxiety. But research shows that, over time, this fixation on the traumas of others actually robs us of meaningful social interactions and may interfere with sleep, work or hobbies, which in turn increases our anxiety.
For many of us, the war in Ukraine and the epidemic of mass shootings has taken this focus on bad news to an even unhealthier level.
Why Disasters We Don’t Directly Experience Still Impact Us
In our modern, global community, videos from thousands of miles away can now be viewed continuously from the palm of your hand. This ensures that threats will feel a lot closer than they really are.
When we witness a disaster, whether it’s a scene on the news or a car accident by the side of the road, our brain’s survival alarms are triggered. Once we can determine there is no immediate threat to our person, our survival-focused brains now have this opportunity to “face our fears” in a way that still preserves our safety.
This hardwired impulse to stare at the aftermath becomes problematic when the scene is ongoing, especially if we know someone impacted or we otherwise identify with those experiencing the traumatic event. In this case, the brain’s negative bias is activated, and we expect the worst in order to feel mentally prepared for it. Ultimately, this keeps us ruminating on worst-case-scenarios, which erodes our quality of life.
Because the problem is rooted in the brain’s Stone Age survival programming, mindfulness offers us a constructive path forward. Through mindfulness, we can access our capacity to be compassionate in the face of suffering, and calm enough to provide our loving, neutral witness.
Why “Neutrality” is Fundamental to Compassion
We can learn a lot about the value of neutrality from examining the role of United Nations Military Observers who don’t engage in the actual conflict. In fact, they undergo special training to develop the degree of emotional neutrality required to monitor and assess situations in war-torn regions plagued by humanitarian crisis. Neutrality is what makes them compassionate witnesses who are able to accurately recount what they observe, even under the most horrific circumstances.
The good news is any of us can develop the skills to observe more neutrally, and to have compassion for people without getting caught up in our own drama about what is happening.
What to Do When You Can’t Stop “Looking”
When you feel yourself starting to get caught up in traumatic events, your mental health and happiness may very well depend on your ability to simply turn off the news. When you can’t stop thinking about the war, pandemic, disaster, shooting, etc., acknowledge that you’ve become hooked on the drama of the situation.
If you’re rewatching video scenes in your head or can’t stop thinking about how horrible you would feel if you were the one experiencing the traumatic event, use the breath to help you quiet your thoughts and calm your emotions so you can focus on detachment.
Be mindful that what we imagine about the traumas experienced by others are often more about our own issues and fears. It’s human nature to fixate on the things we fear the most when they happen to others. We imagine this makes us caring, when we’re really just staring back at our own issues, however unconsciously.
Be Willing to Feel Your Own Pain
The bottom line is you can’t feel or process another person’s pain. To be a compassionate, neutral witness, you have to be willing to feel your own Authentic Pain.
Authentic Pain isn’t about obsessing, or picturing yourself in a situation you can’t possibly imagine, or descending into guilt about what you still have that others have lost, or boiling over with rage and indignation at the people in power who refuse to address the problem.
Instead, Authentic Pain is the real-time grief you feel about the suffering of others. It’s your confusion that we live in the kind of world where something like this can happen. It’s your anger at the situation, and your fear of the uncertain future.
Authentic Pain is the only pain that is truly yours to feel and process. To ground yourself in the here and now of your Authentic Pain, try these statement starters.I feel anger at the way [the circumstances] affect me and/or what I care about.
I feel sad about [what has been lost].
I am confused [about what I don’t understand… or about what I should do].
I am afraid of [the uncertainties].
When you use these statements to dial back your reaction and connect to the Authentic Pain beneath it, you can be present with suffering rather than being caught up in the drama of world events.
Most importantly, when you can remain present, you’ll be better able to determine what you can do to care for yourself so that you can also help others. I call this being “response-able,” in other words, able to respond appropriately and constructively.
When you’re present, calm and quiet in your mind, you can determine how you might contribute to a real solution. Maybe you can find a fund to donate to, or an aid organization to support. You might conduct research to learn more about an issue in order to educate others in your sphere of influence. If you feel guided to do so, you might even become an advocate for whatever you believe could really make a difference.
Whatever you choose to do, don’t forget to find moments of peacefulness and serenity that nurture your optimism about life and faith in humanity. Unlike toxic positivity, realistic optimism is the most powerful fuel I know for lasting change.