On Sunday night, I decided to check the Weather Channel app just before going to bed. Amid a sunny forecast, I got sucked into a video of San Juan’s mayor pleading for help as Puerto Rico continues to suffer massively from hurricane damage. “We are dying here,” she said as tears welled in my eyes. Come Monday morning I woke up and did what I usually do first thing: checked Instagram. One of the first posts I saw read “Pray for Vegas.” I went straight to the New York Times app and was again brought to tears reading about the horrors that unfolded as fifty-nine people were brutally killed (and hundreds more injured) in a mass shooting—the largest in American history—at a country concert Sunday night in Las Vegas.
In that moment I felt so overwhelmed. In the span of just eight hours I was doing two mundane activities that became vehicles for reminding me of all the devastation and senseless violence that has been so present in our lives lately.
But Sunday’s event was just the tip of the iceberg. This summer we’ve watched numerous tragedies unfold around the world and in our own country. The act of terror on the London Bridge, the shooting at the congressional baseball game in Virginia, the Charlottesville rallies, the raid of bombings and stabbings in the Catalonia region of Spain—just to name a few. Meanwhile, natural disasters have caused unprecedented devastation. There have been (and continue to be) wildfires engulfing California, Oregon, Montana, and Washington; earthquakes in Mexico; and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria have annihilated much of the Caribbean and parts of the Southern U.S.
How Trauma Fatigue Works
When I asked him how he has seen people affected by the seemingly endless stream of tragedy, he told me that our connection to the varying events is like concentric circles. Similar to the theory of six degrees of separation, which says that we all know each other by a margin of six mutual friends or less, Klapow describes how our connection and internalization of global events tends to be different depending on how close we are to the locus. At the most acute level, you are at the pressure point (i.e., you live in Houston). At a slightly removed level, maybe you know someone who was just visiting the Virgin Islands before the storm hit. Zooming out a bit more, maybe you studied abroad in London back in college. “If you look at it globally vs. at the individual level, events of late impact each of us slightly differently depending on our proximity either physically or emotionally to any of the given disasters or traumas,” Klapow says. “Sometimes we are caught off guard by why we feel so bad, but the reality is that we almost always have some connection to a disaster.”
That made a lot of sense to me as I thought about my own reactions Monday morning. I’ve never been to Puerto Rico, but I’ve been to Vegas many times and have made countless great memories there. Maybe that’s why the news from Nevada felt that much more impactful to me, personally.
“But emotionally we are complex, and so we naturally form connections to the traumas even if we weren’t directly affected,” Klapow says. “The emotional impact of watching something unfold thanks to multimedia and the internet is very real.”
That’s where I think many of us feel the most “fatigue.” It’s nearly impossible to rest from the events of the world, and for the most part, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be disconnected from it. Still, it’s important to know how to care for our own emotions when it comes to things that feel painful even if they’re somewhat removed from us.
A Better Way to Process
“You need to be aware of the impact and not down play it,” Klapow says. Each of us owes it to ourselves to reflect on what happens around us. Klapow suggests a combination of things. Foremost, he says reality checks are really helpful. Take a moment to acknowledge that you feel distress and allow for a moment of gratitude that you are OK. “Try to accept that there is uncertainty in the world,” he says, “as many of us have feelings of guilt when we do feel OK despite the tragedy others are facing.”
Finally, he stresses the importance of humanity. “The distress you feel means you are human,” he says. “Use the distress to do good in your life. Hug your kids, talk to your neighbors, try to use the tragedy as a way to get on the same team with people. The alternative approach—anger, blame, trying to put a rational response together for something that may have no explanation is likely to cause more distress and more frustration.”
I know I’m not the only one feeling helpless right now. It’s hard to make sense of tragedies whether they’re naturally occurring or hideous acts of violence. Las Vegas, for me, was the final straw. After a long summer of trying news reels, I know I need to seek ways to process it all. Being caught up in our own mini-dramas and daily hustle, it’s easy to think we’re unaffected by others’ pain, but it’s simply not true. As Klapow told me, “Our ability to handle crises big and small is a life skill that we must all have.”