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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW
Adena Bank Lees, LCSW

Yes, You Can Be Traumatized By The Media!

6 practical tools to stay informed & stay sane

Can’t stop looking at Facebook or other social media sites? News broadcasts? Even though they may leave you feeling anxious, depressed, and/or overwhelmed?

In 2018 – it’s hard to escape the constant bombardment of media, but this compulsion could be a warning sign of your possibly experiencing what is called Vicarious Traumatization or Secondary Traumatic Stress. (VT/STS)

It’s important to note – there are two forms of trauma: direct trauma and indirect trauma. While direct trauma — trauma we are personally involved in — is easier to recognize, indirect trauma occurs more subtlety. We ourselves, do not experience the event first-hand. We hear about it or view it on a screen. VT/STS refers to the indirect trauma that can happen with exposure to difficult or disturbing stories and images.

Ultimately, Vicarious Traumatization and Secondary Traumatic Stress lead us to have similar signs and symptoms as those with diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

No matter where you live, what side of the aisle you are on, what your economic status is, what the color of your skin is, what your sexual orientation or gender expression is, or what religion you follow, we are all vulnerable to information overload. Especially when the information is difficult or disturbing. And, even more so when we have been the victim of some form of abuse, violation ourselves, or have a limited to no support system.

So, what are some of the other main warning signs of Vicarious Traumatization or Secondary Traumatic Stress? As suggested by Saakvitne and Pearlman (1996), there are three categories under which they fall: Physical, Behavioral, and Emotional/Psychological. Be aware that these oftentimes interact with one another.
Below is a sample of each: (for a more detailed list, go to


  • Exhaustion

  • Insomnia

  • Headaches

  • GI distress

  • Rashes, breakouts

  • Grinding your teeth at night

  • Heart palpitations


  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs (Rx and illicit)

  • Anger and Irritability at home and/or at work

  • Excessive watching and zoning out to TV or Movies

  • Impaired appetite or binge eating

  • Difficulties in sexual intimacy

  • Avoiding social and family gatherings

  • Impaired ability to make decisions


  • Depression

  • Increased anxiety

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Feelings of hopelessness

  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy towards others

  • Cynicism

  • Diminished sense of enjoyment

  • Obsessive thinking

  • Intrusive thoughts and images

  • Numbing and emotional shut down

How can we protect ourselves from information overload?

6 Practical Tools to Stay Informed & Stay Sane

1. Breathe- it is the no-cost, most important and portable tool you have. Make sure you breathe through your nose and that your exhale is longer than your inhale. This gives you the cleanest and deepest breathe possible while activating your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system aids in calming your body. Breathing also gives you a moment of pause so you can respond rather than react.

2. Set up a warning sign monitoring system.
Identify the three most potent signs you encounter. If you are having difficulty, ask for help from a friend, colleague or loved one. Stay aware, and ask others to tell you if they see you exhibiting any of these signs. Even when we are trying, sometimes we cannot see ourselves, but others can.
As I have suggested to clients, use a 0-10 scale where 0 equals no disturbance and 10 is the biggest you can imagine. With anxiety, for example, one particular client practices observing her anxiety level when she is engaged in watching a news program. When her anxiety reaches a 7, she turns off the program and does something soothing for herself. This prevents her from feeling overwhelmed and out of control, possibly leading to an anxiety or panic attack.
It is ok, even necessary, to stop yourself from experiencing such intense signs that your daily life is disrupted.
Another client knows that she cannot watch a news program or go on Facebook without her anxiety level being a 9 or 10. It is up that high just thinking about it. So, what she has chosen to do is to stay away from those forms of media for now. They are just too triggering. She engages in activities that bring purpose, meaning, peace, and connection instead.

3. Talk about your feelings and experience- with a professional or like-minded friend/loved one. Holding your feelings in can literally make you sick. Sharing with a trusted other often times halves the burden we are carrying. Asking for their time, attention, and assistance is a strength, not a weakness.

4. Limit your time consuming all forms of media communications. If you have to set a timer, do it. Being informed about what is happening in our world is important, but being overwhelmed takes away our ability to act constructively.

5. Get involved in activities that are empowering. Community service, political activism, and/or setting and achieving an important life goal, for example. These types of actions may prevent and mediate anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, and overwhelm.

6. Take time to laugh, have fun and connect with loved ones/friends. Healthy, loving connection goes a long way in soothing our nervous systems, and boosting our mood.


Hanson, R. (2016). Hardwiring Happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. New York, NY: Harmony.

Pearlman, L.A. Saakvitne, K. (1996) Transforming The Pain: A workbook on vicarious traumatization. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Pearlman, L.A. and Saakvitne, K. (1995). Trauma And The Therapist: Countertransference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Mathieu,F. (2011) The Compassion Fatigue Workbook: Creative tools for transforming compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization. New York, New York: Routledge.

About the Author
Adena Bank Lees, LCSW

Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, is a counselor, speaker, author, and consultant, providing fresh perspective on traumatic stress, addiction treatment and recovery.