What happened Jan. 6 at the nation’s Capitol was a shocking attack on our democracy as well as a literal attack on the building, our legislators and the workers who were in it at the time. Those who were present in the Capitol that day were in fear for their lives and some may suffer post-traumatic stress as a result.
Ordinary people are suffering, too.
Part of what we are suffering is vicarious trauma as a result of watching, listening and reading about the events at the Capitol as they unfolded and in endless replays in the aftermath. The anxiety that causes is being compounded for some by the emotional impacts of COVID-19: isolation, grief, hopelessness and depression.
And the hits just keep on coming.
Exacerbating our natural response to the events of Jan. 6 is the frenzied feast of media coverage that repeats over and over the sounds and images of what happened that day, followed with more, “New!” and “Just revealed!” video and audio recordings, plus personal accounts from legislators and news reporters who experienced the attack.
Now, the groups that fomented the insurrection have promised to commit more violence in all 50 state capitols; the stability of our government feels threatened on many fronts.
Some of us are afraid for the future of our country and our long-term national security, things we once took for granted. Those who have never associated a sense of security with the government – including many people of color and ethnic minorities – may feel their fragile sense of safety even further eroded.
In the wake of such events, it is tempting to let ourselves fall into habitual behaviors that are emotionally damaging, according to mental health experts. Watching and listening to hours of news coverage, or “doomscrolling,” can cause us to feel overwhelmed.
Dr. Lisa Frank, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma, said that among the most vulnerable are people who have experienced significant personal traumas in their lives, perhaps beginning in childhood. Memories and feelings associated with those past events may be triggered by the current situation, even though it bears no resemblance to those events.
Symptoms tend to constellate on one or the other end of the emotional spectrum: some people may feel agitation, panic, anger, depression, hyperstimulation; others may feel distracted, disconnected from reality, numb.
“It can be traumatizing for us to expose ourselves to a lot of news,” she said. “I tell my patients not to put their heads in the sand, but to limit their exposure.”
Repetitive video coverage of the events is most harmful because it reaches us through our visual and auditory senses, amplifying the disturbing effects of information.
“We don’t need to watch the videos over and over again,” Frank said.
We are not suggesting that we should not stay informed or should not face the reality of what has happened and what may happen in the coming days, weeks and months. It’s important to acknowledge the facts and our feelings about what has happened.
But at some point each day, we should say, “enough,” and focus our attention on healthy activities such as taking a walk, watching a funny movie or talking with a friend. This is especially important in households with children and other emotionally vulnerable individuals. We might also reach out to support family or friends who have significant trauma in their backgrounds and may be deeply affected by recent events.
We cannot predict when COVID-19 or the current political unrest will end. But we are reminded that people have, in times past, faced similar and even more frightening situations. The morale-boosting slogan the British Ministry of Information issued on posters at the beginning of World War II in 1939 may be recycled for our own purposes today: Keep Calm and Carry On.