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You’re Not Imagining It: Empathy Hurts

Hadley Sorensen, 16, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is comforted by her mother Stacy Sorensen at a makeshift memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting. (Gerald Herbert/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Hadley Sorensen, 16, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is comforted by her mother Stacy Sorensen at a makeshift memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

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For most of us, empathy in the face of tragedy comes naturally. We see someone suffering and we suffer too. If someone dies, we weep. If someone is hurting, we ache. If someone is afraid, we comfort them. We want to take away their pain. And we want to know why the tragedy happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

In the age of social media and 24/7 cable news, tragedy travels swiftly, accompanied by the vivid sounds and stories of those who were there.

This week, we are bearing witness to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who — though so raw and so tender in their grief and rage — are speaking truth to power: from Emma González’s impassioned speech, read from her scribbled notes and broadcast worldwide; to the bold confrontation between Cameron Kasky and Sen. Marco Rubio in CNN’s televised town hall meeting on Wednesday night, when Kasky asked Rubio, “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”

We immerse ourselves in the constant coverage, absorb the poignant testimonies. For those of us who are acutely sensitive to others' suffering, we might visualize the actual scenes. What must it have been like hearing the gunshots, escaping the building, hiding under a desk, crouching in a closet, or, for the parents, waiting to learn if our child was a victim or survivor? Our heart rate might jump, our blood pressure might spike, we might cry or shake or scream. We respond this way because we care, we feel.

What we might be experiencing is called “secondary trauma” or “vicarious trauma"

On my Facebook page, which represents merely my curated social network, comprised mostly of writers, therapists and educators, I’ve read multiple plaintive posts such as, “I can’t sleep,” or “I haven’t stopped crying in two days,” “I can’t leave the house, I’m so afraid,” “I don’t want to send my child to school,” and so on. I’m imagining my page is not unlike many other people’s Facebook pages. It’s a stressful time. It’s been a stressful time for a long time.

So, yes, we are traumatized. And yet, this trauma — and countless others in the past months and years, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Parkland — did not happen to us directly.

What we might be experiencing is called “secondary trauma” or “vicarious trauma” (the former relates to a onetime exposure, the latter to cumulative exposure). The symptoms are the same: feeling tired or ill, being less productive, avoiding social situations, having insomnia, hypervigilance, nightmares, worry, fear, despair, sadness, hopelessness and replaying traumatic images. Sound familiar?

By contrast, and seemingly paradoxically, empathetic people who are exposed regularly to trauma, whether direct or indirect, are at risk for compassion fatigue or burnout, which can manifest as a desensitization, or numbing of feelings, as in the case of child welfare workers who have treated abused or neglected children, or war veterans with PTSD.

Both are normal human reactions. How can we, as observers, set a boundary around these events and their aftermath, which, again, did not happen directly to us, and still show we care?

We want to know what’s going on in the world. But what good can we do, how effective can we be, if we’re walking around either numb or with our nerve endings turned inside out?

How can we, as observers, set a boundary around these events that did not happen directly to us?

Self-care for caring people is crucial in traumatic times. Proven strategies such as mindfulness can help. Even if it’s just for five minutes a day, we must calm our bodies and minds if we’re going to survive the long haul.

It’s OK to turn off the TV and go for a walk in nature. Shut down the computer. Play with your kids. Treat a friend to lunch. Listen to soothing music or a guided relaxation recording. Meditate. Breathe. Laugh. Just laugh for no reason, as Dr. Madan Kataria, creator of Laughter Yoga (yes, it’s a thing), advocates.

Reaching out to others through acts of altruism can help, too, as recommended by the International Society for Traumatic Stress, which has conducted research about the aftereffects of mass shootings. Volunteer for a favorite cause. Donate to organizations in need.

And, when you are ready, when you are restored and energized and coming from a place of strength rather than depletion, then choose your personal path forward. Make art. March on Washington. Speak out. Shout out. Re-engage with the world.

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Deborah Sosin Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Deborah Sosin, LICSW, is a clinical social worker and author of the award-winning picture book “Charlotte and the Quiet Place.”

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