Lockdown and the uncertainty about when it will end have kept us glued to news bulletins. Although they keep us up to date, they come with a price – accounts of suffering, together with mind-boggling figures of deaths and hospital admissions, remind us constantly of the enormity of everyone’s distress. What is the continual barrage of misery doing to us, and how can we cope with this aspect of the pandemic?
You might expect that constant exposure to suffering hardens us to it. Research, however, suggests otherwise. Ted Bober and Cheryl Regehr at the University of Toronto asked 259 therapists to fill in a trauma questionnaire and log the time they spent listening to traumatised patients. The more hours they spent listening to sufferers, the higher their own trauma score was.
Fiona Cocker at Monash University and Nerida Joss at the University of Melbourne reviewed studies of healthcare, emergency and community service workers. The more severe the trauma that carers witnessed, the greater their own distress. Is it worse to endure a physical trauma yourself or watch another go through it?
Andreas Nordstrand at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recruited 4,053 Norwegian soldiers who had been exposed to different types of trauma while serving in Afghanistan. He divided their experiences into danger-based – for example, being shot at or ambushed – and non-danger-based, such as witnessing a suicide bombing or the killing of innocent civilians. Those who had experienced events where others suffered but they came to no harm reported significantly greater distress than the others. Nordstrand concludes: “Depression, chronic sleep disorders and anxiety were much more linked to non-danger-based stressors than having been in fear for one’s life.”
How, then, can you lessen the distress you will feel when you’re reminded of the suffering that’s all around us? Avoid updating yourself when you’re alone. J. Eric Gentry, who created a programme to help those suffering from what he refers to as “compassion fatigue”, recommends talking through distressing encounters with like-minded others. This allows you to feel supported, and helps boost resilience.
When you want to update yourself on the news, read rather than watch whenever possible. Because we rely on screens for so many social encounters right now, the line between virtual and real is less pronounced. That means images are more potent than ever.
Learn to self-regulate