Navigating the Impact of Traumatic Events on Mental Health

Published On: November 22, 2023Categories: Crisis Management, Health & Safety

The dramatic outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine has deeply impacted people across the world, including journalists, NGO workers and the general public. There is a collective sense of helplessness as we watch the conflict unfold and witness the terrible scale of suffering and loss of life.

Many are struggling to cope with their inability to assist friends and colleagues in the conflict zone and experiencing a sense of inadequacy. It has also proven difficult to share and discuss these emotions with others as many people have taken sides in this conflict. It is easy to attract criticism and even abuse.

RiskPal spoke to Dr. Kate Porterfield to explore how we can best cope with the feelings of powerlessness and isolation.

Dr. Porterfield, a consulting clinical psychologist at the Bellevue Hospital Program for Survivors of Torture in New York, has provided clinical care to those who have experienced war, refugee trauma and torture for more than 20 years. A founding staff member of the Journalist Trauma Support Network, an initiative at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, she works with journalists and human rights organisations.

A Human Response

One of the first things Dr. Porterfield emphasises is the normalcy of experiencing distress and helplessness amid such overwhelming circumstances.

“What is happening right now is horribly distressing,” she said. “Why would you not feel distressed by it? The suffering, the endless feeling of ‘Is this ever going to stop?’ You can’t expect not to have emotions. In fact, you don’t want to have no emotions, as that would mean a different problem – that you’re shutting down.”

She underscores that “…the job is not to eradicate discomfort; the job is to build the ability to cope and to sit with distress.”

Validate Your Feelings

A common challenge for individuals grappling with overwhelming situations is the emergence of self-doubt and questioning the significance of their actions.

Dr. Porterfield stresses the critical importance of taking a moment to step back and objectively evaluate the narratives we construct about ourselves. As a rule of thumb, you should be as kind to yourself as you are to a friend.

Whether engaged in humanitarian activities or a journalist trying to report the truth, you should always remind yourself that your efforts are valuable and have a tangible impact.

“One of the things we say at the Dart Center is that you actually are doing something,” said Dr. Porterfield. “You may feel helpless, but you’re providing a service to inform people and that is a powerful resource.”

Assess How You Are Coping

If we accept that we are going to have uncomfortable, upsetting feelings, how do we know if we are handling these appropriately, as well as the ensuing stress? Dr. Porterfield recommends asking yourself the following questions, based on the work of trauma expert Prof. Arieh Y. Shalev:

  1. Am I getting done what I need to do? Ensure you are accomplishing basic tasks like getting up every day, maintaining a healthy diet and fulfilling work and household responsibilities. Struggling with these basics may indicate impaired coping and you might need extra help.
  2. Are my emotions in check?It is important to acknowledge your emotions without letting them overpower you. Uncontrollable crying or emotional outbursts may signal excessive distress.
  3. What is my body telling me? “If you’re under stress, or you’re in conditions of trauma, your body’s going to communicate with you. Your job is to listen. Because if your body tells you ‘I am in pain, I can’t do this’, there are ways to respect that messaging from your body, whether it’s pain, fatigue or hunger.”
  4. Am I maintaining a positive view of who I am and what I stand for? Avoid self-attack, guilt or blame and notice the negative feelings that get you into trouble. Dr. Porterfield warns that “This can tip over into a very unhelpful way of treating yourself when you’re under stress, which is to blame yourself.”
  5. Am I having meaningful contact with others? Our ability to connect with others is one of our most basic human needs. Especially in stressful situations, you need to foster positive and healthy attachments with others, seeking support rather than isolating yourself. “If you are isolating yourself and feeling angry and irritable rather than turning towards people for support, the chances are stress is landing in you in a way that you might want to readjust.”

Working through these questions can guide your path forward – whether it involves reaching out to a therapist or seeking support from a medical professional, or simply carving out time for activities that can help you to alleviate stress.

A Toolbox for Coping

To improve resilience, Dr. Porterfield recommends building a personalised toolbox of coping strategies that work for you based around the following: 

Bio – Rest and recreation, sleep, eating well, exercise, breathing, grounding, meditation. Find pleasure and moments of calm in music and nature.  

Psycho – Naming and then letting thoughts pass. For example, tell yourself: “I see that I feel helpless right now. I accept that but recognise that it will pass”. Notice when you engage in self-attack and then stop it with self-empathy. Acknowledge that “This is a hard thing to be dealing with.” 

Social – Create a list of your supports, both personal and professional, and practice asking for help. Also, turn outward and offer support to others 

Dr. Porterfield emphasises that: “It’s about building a framework or toolbox that you can draw from.” Ask yourself what you need to make yourself feel better. ‘Do I need a break? Do I need to go see family? Do I need more prayer and to join a community? Or do I need to take action that involves some kind of social work?” 

Further Resources

For journalists looking for further information about trauma please see: 

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