Living with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental illnesses takes a toll, often in more ways than we realize. Our wounds leave us fragile and sensitive to the suffering of others. It is not uncommon for those with mental illness to find it difficult to read about certain subjects, view movies with disturbing themes, or even to read the news. This is referred to as being triggered, because witnessing or learning about the suffering of others may trigger the reopening of our own wounds.
While mental illness leaves us vulnerable and sensitive to others’ suffering, it also has a way of increasing our interest in those stories that feel familiar. We have been through a lot, and we can easily identify with how others feel. We don’t want to shut the world out as a result of our reactivation.
Here are 9 ways to stay engaged with popular culture, others’ stories, and current events while protecting ourselves from being triggered and re-traumatized.
1. Draw your circle of influence.
My first year of college, I took Intro to Psychology, Intro to Sociology, Intro to African-American Studies, Intro to Family Studies, and Intro to Child Advocacy. To say that I was overwhelmed with all of the problems in our world is an understatement.
My sociology professor suggested that I list all of the problems weighing on me and enclose them in a big circle. In a smaller circle inside the big circle, I was to list the things over which I had control. These were the areas on which I was to focus my energy and attention. I could still care about the big list, but the small list should be my primary concern.
2. Know your limits.
Some issues are too intense for certain people. If you are able to identify an issue, or even several issues, that you know cause you too much emotional pain, respect what your body and mind are telling you and avoid them. Protecting your emotional health by setting boundaries is a sign of maturity and strength. You should not feel ashamed or embarrassed that you want to censor some information in order to preserve your mental health.
3. Abstain when triggered.
If you are having a difficult day, week, month, or even year, it’s OK to take a break from reading the news. The world will continue to function and progress, for better or worse, without you reading the headlines. It is admirable to be informed of current events, but not if you are sacrificing your sanity.
4. Participate with others.
If you are ready to watch the news or watch a movie about a difficult social issue, do it with someone else. Being with a caring person while learning about the tough realities of our world is comforting. You can be informed, and have someone to talk to about it after.
5. Express yourself.
If you find yourself overwhelmed with the current state of the world, a book you read, or a movie you watched, express yourself through writing, art, music, or any form of self-expression. It is cathartic to get the feelings out and it will help you process your experience.
6. Take a break.
You decided to watch a movie about a tough issue. You felt prepared. Suddenly, you found yourself flooded with difficult emotions.
Stop the movie. Put down the book. Turn off the news. Healing our world starts at home. Do not retraumatize yourself in the name of being well-informed or well-read.
7. Develop a spiritual practice.
Many people find it calming to pray, meditate, visualize peace, do breathing exercises, chant, or any number of other spiritual practices. These are not only calming to the practitioner, but many believe that they also affect the rest of the world in a positive way.
8. Get involved.
Sensitive people and those who have been traumatized are not the best candidates to be first responders. If you suffered child abuse, becoming a foster parent might be too difficult, but you could start a shoe drive to donate new shoes to foster children. If you survived domestic violence, working in a domestic violence shelter might be overwhelming, but you could knit some scarves and hats for those who live there during the winter. If you lived through a natural disaster, you may not want to volunteer to search houses for bodies after a hurricane, but you could organize donations for the survivors. You can still be active while you protect yourself from further trauma.
9. Use your brain.
We are hardwired to soothe ourselves. One of the ways we are programmed to self-soothe is through eye movement. Reading requires us to move our eyes back and forth as we complete each line of text. This signals the brain to produce calming neurotransmitters that help you relax. This means that if you are intent on learning about the latest earthquake, but you lived through one that was very traumatic for you, read about it instead of watching a video of it. The eye movement of reading will act as a buffer against the difficult content.
The news, social media, films, books, and other art forms can be difficult for people who come from hard places and have experienced a lot of suffering. Sometimes it is impossible even to predict what you are going to see, hear, or read. But it is possible to protect yourself and preserve the progress that you are making. Sometimes self-care is the only way to get through the minefield that can be our daily lives.
Painter photo available from Shutterstock