Art by Madeline Duvall
Traumatic events happen every day, and there is no doubt that experiencing trauma has an impact on one’s mental and physical health. But what happens to those who are not directly or firsthand affected by traumatic events? Are the emotional responses of those people negated or wrong?
When trauma changes the course of a person’s life, it can be hard to navigate and understand how and who such events impact. The effects of stress from violence within communities or disasters across the world can produce intense emotional duress, agitation, restlessness or anxiety, leading to secondary traumatic stress.
Within the past year, Pepperdine University was impacted by two traumatic events: the Borderline Shooting and the Woolsey Fire. While most students were on or near the Malibu campus as these events unfolded, a portion of Pepperdine’s community watched from thousands of miles away. This left many Pepperdine students struggling to figure out where and if their emotional duress fit within that of their peers back in Malibu. This left many students, including myself, asking, “am I allowed to feel, too?”
Secondary traumatic stress is the “emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another,” and each year more than 10 million children in the United States experience some variation of trauma such as “abuse, violence, natural disasters or other adverse events,” according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).
Ninety-one percent of young people today, specifically the 15 to 21-year-olds of Generation Z, are believed to have experienced “one emotional or physical symptom of stress in the past month” in comparison to 74% of adults overall, according to the American Psychological Association.
If looked at closely, in the lifetime of 15 and 21-year-olds, America’s youth has seen seven of the 10 most deadly episodes of gun violence in American history, was born into the War on Terror, battled the debilitating effects of ecological collapse and so much more. With these events consuming the lifespan of millions over the course of the last few decades, it is to no surprise that Generation Z has accumulated the worst mental health of “any generation,” according to TIME.
With the existence of information technology and social media, news of adverse events, disasters and violence allow for trauma to be shared among millions of users instantly. This unrestricted access to information enables secondary traumatic stress to spread so far between peoples that it is virtually “impossible” for researchers to “quantify [the number] of people who aren’t direct victims,” according to U.S. News.
Last school year, the use of social media was vital for Pepperdine students who were studying abroad. In times of stress, social media quickly becomes the only way for many to obtain information. However, as breaking news is posted to social media, the ability to find accurate information immediately can be very difficult and can contribute to secondhand stress.
For those who suffer from secondary traumatic stress, there really is no rule book on what to do or how to handle it.
While trauma is not exclusive to a certain population of people or victims, it is important to understand and respect those who have been direct victims of trauma. The easiest way to do this is by not placing oneself at an equal emotional level of those directly impacted by traumas. This can be done by practicing more sympathy, rather than empathy.
If one does find themselves struggling with secondary traumatic stress or any related symptoms after a traumatic event, reach out to a professional. In terms of preventative care for oneself, try limiting time spent on social media platforms. Share this advice with friends who may be struggling as well and remind them that their feelings are valid.
Email Camryn Gordon: firstname.lastname@example.org