On secondary experiences and secondary trauma

Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, AT&T U-Verse made TV Japan available to the public so everybody could follow what was happening. Sure enough, I got sucked in. How could I not? The images are extraordinary, like something out of an apocalypse movie. It’s hard to believe this actually happened and is still happening. And if it happened there, it could happen anywhere. But I’m still in shock. I keep going back to the images of the tsunami hitting the coast washing away anything it found in its path. I keep tearing up, feeling petrified, small and insignificant in the face of such monstrous destruction. Why can’t I stop reading and watching the news? Looking at videos, watching interviews with traumatized survivors, experiencing the devastation through the small screen? I mean, it can’t possibly be good for my mental health, can it?
And I can’t help but think about September 11 2001. Do you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing that morning? I do. I had just moved to the US a month prior. I was at school, eating breakfast. All I remember is watching the images of the planes hitting the towers, over and over and over and over again. After a while, it became close to a tape playing incessantly in my brain. I couldn’t shut off the image spinning in my head. Tonight I wonder if I can keep the images of drowning buildings at bay as I lay in my comfortable bed thousands of miles away from ground zero. And I wonder tonight, just as I did 10 years ago, what is it about us humans that makes us so hypersensitive to traumatic events in a way that is likely to leave us even more traumatized? I mean, what happens to all the defense mechanisms that are at play on a daily basis, that help us keep our Egos intact? Where do they go when disaster strikes? Why can’t we stop watching a train wreck, or slow down at the scene of a horrific accident or become obsessed with murder mysteries and serial killers?

Obviously, in the beginning there is some degree of shock so we keep exposing ourselves indirectly (through the media, blogs, social networks) to the trauma as if only to ensure our senses are still intact and what we’re seeing and hearing is in fact not a dream.

Secondly, some believe we are innately empathetic and capable of connecting with others in a deep level even if we personally do not share the same experience. We watch footage of post-disaster Japan and we are able to put ourselves in those people’s shoes (for the most part) and imagine what it must be like. We then are able to somehow think, feel, and experience what they have experienced, indirectly. In some sort of a “secondary experience” if you will. This is, I suspect, extremely important for human kind for our survival as a species may depend ultimately on our ability to be connected in such a deep, intricate, complex way, breaking cultural, ethnic, language, geographical and other physical barriers. And that’s what compels us to help. It is easy to put our feelings into actions. This is what makes us come together and forget our differences. Not disaster itself, but our ability to empathize and therefore have secondary experiences.

However, this same ability is also to blame for what is known as secondary trauma. This is well-known in the helping professions, doctors, nurses, counselors, etc. We see and hear about traumatic and painful experiences and can’t help getting affected by them. It is not uncommon for us to experience depression, anxiety, fatigue, and a general sense of impending doom after doing intense trauma work with clients. We experience these feelings and yet our lives are fine so we can’t quite pin point the source of the distress. Until we become aware of all the burden of suffering we sometimes carry around.
In 1999, I volunteered with UNICEF in Kosovo refugee camps working with children who had been displaced from Kosovo during the war. I was still in college then and the experience only reinforced my devotion to becoming a counselor. When people ask me about the experience I say something like “It was fine, really. You’d be amazed at the strength we can find in ourselves and others when faced with war and devastation. The kids were amazing and so resilient”. The truth is I still vividly remember the drawing of a 6 year old boy which detailed exactly how a serb would die in his hands when he “captured” him. It’s not something you see everyday.
The moral of the story for me I guess is to remind myself that it’s OK to take special care during these times of great worldwide turmoil. Yes, myself. My tiny, insignificant self. I wish I could do something bigger than just donating money but I’m faced with the stubborn reality of my own powerlessness. I’m reminded of my own mortality and that of the people I love. I’m reminded that some of those people are thousands of miles away, halfway across the world.
So my message is, take good care of yourself and your loved ones in the midst of all this. Because only then can you truly be helpful. Take care of your children. Talk to them about what they may have heard or watched on TV.
And most importantly take a break from the news. It’s OK. You can give yourself permission to live your life.

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