Ask a therapist: How to cope with distressing events and bad world news

Distressing events are often really tough to cope with. They’re usually sudden and shocking, and they can have a big impact on you, even if you aren’t directly involved. Sometimes distressing events occur as a result of a larger social issue, like war or ongoing violence against a particular social group. When you’re witnessing these events, it can feel unfair to focus on your own needs and wellbeing. 

We asked Nasalifya Namwinga, a clinical psychologist, to answer your questions about how to cope with distressing events and manage potential trauma responses, feelings of guilt and advocacy fatigue.

Is it normal to be so affected by distressing world news and events?

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Nasalifya says: 

It’s very normal to have a strong emotional response to distressing world news and events. You might be experiencing collective distress, where your wider community is also experiencing this distress with you. 

To cope with collective distress, try engaging in collective hope and healing. This could look like: 

Collective care can have a really positive impact on your wellbeing, but it’s most effective when done in addition to other forms of mental health support, like self-care, chatting with loved ones and seeking professional help.

Do I have vicarious trauma?

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Nasalifya says: 

You may have heard the term vicarious trauma being used to describe when someone feels traumatised by someone else’s lived experience. While this is somewhat true, it actually has a more specific definition:

Vicarious trauma is typically talked about when professionals work in contexts where they are repeatedly hearing stories about people’s lived experience of trauma, and develop trauma as a result. Example professions include psychologists, peer workers, social workers and police officers.

So, if you’re feeling distressed and upset by someone else’s experience, it’s unlikely to be vicarious trauma unless it fits within a professional context. This doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t valid or worthy of seeking professional support. There are several other terms that may suit your experience, including: 

  • Secondary trauma = when we hear about, read about, watch videos about, or have someone tell us directly about a traumatic experience and it leaves us feeling really upset.

  • Community trauma = when something traumatic happens to a particular community group, and it leaves that group feeling vulnerable and distressed. 

  • Collective distress = when we all, as a collective, feel distressed by a traumatic event or something that’s happened in society.

If you’re concerned you’re experiencing trauma of any kind, the best thing to do is chat with a professional, like a GP, psychologist or counsellor. Don’t worry if you feel unsure about what you’re experiencing; a professional can help you put a name to what you’re going through.

I want to help but I'm feeling defeated by bad world news. How can I stay connected?

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Nasalifya says: 

Advocacy work can be really rewarding, but also exhausting. You may find over time that you start to develop advocacy fatigue. This could be because you’re giving a lot to one issue, or you’re trying your best to help on every issue you can. 

It’s not realistic to know everything about the world and be able to support every issue that matters to you. You also need to find time to care for yourself and the people you love. But finding this balance can be really tough, because pulling back on advocacy work can lead to feelings of guilt. 

To manage advocacy and fatigue, try these three tips: 

  1. Make sure you’re not doing the work alone. Connect with other people who share your concerns and can shoulder some of the effort and work when you need a break.

  2. Be strategic about how you use your energy. Ask yourself what is the thing you do that has the highest impact and something you can deliver really well. Then dedicate your energy to achieving that goal.

  3. Support other people doing similar work for other issues. By cheering on others instead of trying to do it all yourself, you’re benefiting both your own wellbeing and the causes you’re supporting!

Does constant exposure to distressing news affect my mental health?

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Nasalifya says: 

Being tuned in to a constant distressing news cycle can have a negative impact on your wellbeing. If you’re only viewing disturbing or upsetting content, then you may start to see the world as unsafe. That can impact how you move through the world, and how you treat yourself and others.

It’s important to be kind to yourself as you process distressing events. It’s okay to tune out for a day or so, and just focus on your own wellbeing. 

It’s hard because it’s hard, not because there’s something wrong with you.

While social media is an incredible tool, it also can work to keep you locked into a distressing news cycle. Spending less time online will help, but it isn’t always realistic. If you find it hard to switch off, try to prepare yourself for the time you spend online instead. Learn more about how to do this in the next video.

I don’t want to look away or switch off. Is it possible to engage with distressing news in a healthy way?

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Nasalifya says: 

It’s important to be informed about what’s going on in the world, so sometimes the answer can’t just be to switch off and close your phone. Instead, try engaging with the news and distressing content with intent.

  • Understand your own capacity to actually listen and engage with news about this issue. Ask yourself if you feel prepared to hear distressing stories right now. If you don’t feel prepared, then ask yourself what consuming the news will achieve. 

  • Set aside dedicated time to engage with the issue. Plan when you’ll spend time consuming content about the issue, and for how long. For example, if you’re scrolling through news right before bed and you’re struggling to sleep afterwards, read updates in the morning instead. 

  • Plan to process any news you hear. Make sure you balance your time spent learning about this issue with time spent looking after your own wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or hard – a simple ten-minute meditation after a few hours online can help.

  • Use your impact and influence. Is consuming content the best way for you to support this issue? Consider if there are other things you could be doing with your time, like advocacy work or volunteering, that would allow you to support the people impacted.

It is really difficult to stop and look after yourself, because I know it might bring up feelings of guilt. But it is okay for you to make sure that you’re okay.

Is this something I can see a therapist about?

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Nasalifya says: 

Of course! Even if things didn’t happen to us, that doesn’t mean we’re not impacted by it. You can reach out to any mental health professional for support in dealing with collective distress. 

A key sign that you would benefit from chatting to a professional is if you’re struggling to take care of yourself. For example, you might be eating less or more, having issues with your sleep, or isolating yourself from friends and family. 

Check out a list of the different types of mental health professionals here. For immediate support, you can give one of these helplines a call or use their online chat: 

You could also book in a PeerChat session to speak one-on-one with a ReachOut peer worker.

What can I do now?

  • Share how you’re going on the ReachOut Online Community.

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