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Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.
Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Coping With the Daily Barrage of Upsetting News

Social support, volunteer work and consistent sleep mitigate stress.

Source: Thomas8047/Flicker

by Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD., and Debbie Schleicher, PsyD

Many of us find ourselves glued to the television or to our phones at all hours as we search for news updates regarding campaigns like #MeToo, mass shootings, and natural disasters. It’s difficult to look away from the strife and suffering projected onto our screens. The sheer volume of stressful events occurring on a near-daily basis can make people feel pessimistic or fearful.

The term “vicarious trauma” was first introduced by McCann and Pearlman (1990). It was used to describe the experiences of counselors, therapists, rescue workers and medical professionals. The American Counseling Association described vicarious trauma as a “state of tension and preoccupation with the stories and trauma experiences described by clients.”

Similarly, exposure to the media’s 24/7 news coverage may be overwhelming: Our intuitive need for more information may lead to overconsumption and overexposure that have a negative impact on our mood.

How do we know if the impact is too intense?

  • First, take note of emotional changes that affect daily mood. Some people may experience this as an increase in worry and irritability or heightened sense of feeling unsafe, while others may feel helpless, hopeless and critical.
  • Behavior changes can include isolation and withdrawal from social supports such as close friends and family members. Others may cope by overreliance on substances to minimize the emotional impact of vicarious trauma.
  • Changes in thoughts can include difficulty concentrating, not being able to stop thinking about the events, or a change in one’s outlook (i.e. from believing good things happen to good people to believing bad things happen to good people no matter what).

Once we detect these changes in our feelings and behaviors, we can help ourselves by being focused on self-care, increased social support or offering help to others in need and limiting the amount of stressful material being consumed. When boiled down, coping strategies for vicarious trauma focus on taking care of oneself through “healthy living, expressing emotions and getting support.” (Collins, 2003).

“Self-care” is highly individualized and can be determined by reviewing how we’ve coped with other stressors in our lives. It can include an increase in pleasurable and leisure activities, physical exercise or a consistent sleep schedule. The balance of self-care in light of the vicarious negative experience is crucial to give your mind and body time to digest and accommodate the traumatic content.

Increased social support is key when feeling overwhelmed. Joining social groups or organizations that support one’s reactions can provide much-needed validation, allowing people the opportunity to express their emotions and seek support from others.

Recurrent exposure to unsettling information can easily lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Gaining a sense of control by being able to contribute or help others can alter the impact of these feelings. For instance, attending a local rally, making a donation, or volunteering one’s time to help those in need can help with feeling helpless.

Last but not least, limiting one’s exposure to traumatic material is key to reducing the likelihood of experiencing vicarious trauma in the first place, and managing symptoms should they arise. For helping professions, “reducing hours spent working directly with traumatized individuals was the single most effective way of reducing vicarious trauma” (Mathieu, 2013).

Using this as a model, limiting time dedicated to reading or watching media coverage by only engaging at certain times of the day or certain days of the week can be effective. For others, it may be limiting the type of media they expose themselves to such as choosing between television coverage or the newspaper or reading an online article’s content but not the comments.

Another strategy is to stop following news outlets on social media to avoid being bombarded with headlines when one’s intent is simply to catch up with friends.

If the consumption of traumatic material can be more predictable, planned and balanced with time for other activities, the impact of trauma we consume through the media can be less intense and more manageable.

As we continue adapting to the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle, it is important to take a moment to explore the impact it is having on how we feel, behave and think to better take care of ourselves.


American Counseling Association. Vicarious Trauma.

Collins, S. (2003) Too tired to care? The psychological effects of working with trauma. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 10 (1), 17-27.

Mathieu, F. (2013). What is compassion fatigue?

McCann L. & Pearlman L.A. (1990) Vicarious traumatization: a framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress 3 (1), 131–149.

McCann L. & Pearlman L.A. (1990) Vicarious traumatization: a framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress 3 (1), 131–149.

Vicarious Trauma.” (2016, July 14) Retrieved from

About the Author
Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA with a focus on coping with fear and uncertainty.

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