Leaving Las Vegas: Virtual Traumas and the Freeze

October 1, 2017. A gunman in Las Vegas opens fire, killing nearly 60 people and injuring over 500 more. Our 24/7 news cycles capture and repeat the information, over and over and over. Since Columbine and through 9/11 and now on to Las Vegas, the rash of mass killings and subsequent sensational media coverage has progressed and reached new heights.

At the same time, the viewing public has become more numb and desensitized to mass violence, partly because of the nature of our neurophysiology and biology and partly due to the impact of modern media on our brains and nervous systems. I recently wrote a blog article entitled “Hurricanes, North Korea, and Equifax – Oh My!”, in which I discussed the prevalence of media coverage of disasters, threats, and malfeasances and why they are now so predominant.

The bottom line is that traumatic, shocking events capture our attention and lower brain. Media organizations know that.

The old saying “if it bleeds it leads” has never been more true than in today’s hyper-competition for your attention. Human beings are wired to look for threats in their environment, and events that could be threats to survival will pull our attention strongly in their direction. While natural disasters, incompetent cybersecurity, and rogue dictators may hold our interest, nothing seems to grab people like a terrorist/mass shooting event.

When we witness a tragedy, in person, or via the news, we feel compassion and empathy for those suffering. We often wish we could do SOMETHING to help.  And while there seems to be no immediate action we can take collectively, there are a few things that YOU CAN DO that help to remedy the issue of virtual traumatization. Traumatic events, at their most fundamental levels, are disempowering. They are events which tell the brain we’re under threat, may die or be injured in some way, and that we can’t do anything about. Essentially, trauma creates a sense of helplessness. Then hopelessness. Then more fear and more helplessness.

This is what you can do:

  1. If you're impacted by the event via proximity, seek help.  There are many organizations and helpful solutions for dealing with acutely stressful events. We highly recommend some first-response tools that are very promising for releasing stress in the body.  Contact us for a resource list. 
  2. If you are not near the event and only watching the news, after you get the initial report - Stop watching. We all receive the initial exposure to most events via media (unless we are in the middle of them), and once we do, don’t keep going back again and again to the news to find out more details and to re-immerse yourself in the very event that gave you the shocking images and response in the first place. This doesn’t mean “pretend it didn’t happen” but to purposefully redirect your attention toward something else rather than getting retraumatized and then desensitized. You will go numb inside if you keep going there and/or be driven to numb out in other ways.
  3. Affirm yourself in the moment. Feel your feet under you. Take a slow, deep breath. Shift your attention to something you appreciate, someone you love, something you care deeply about and find inspiring. This process will help down-regulate the amygdala in your brain, bring your attention into the present moment, and begin to decouple your brain’s encoding around the event from the amygdala’s firing. Eventually, this part of your brain will drop away this cyclic response.
  4. Create a sense of completion. The brain is driven to complete traumas based on the natural cycles of the fight-flight-freeze mechanism. At the animal level, we defeat or evade the threat – or succumb. The “freeze” is a pain avoidance, self-opiated, immobilization mechanism that may allow escaping if the prey isn’t killed immediately. A key trauma theory is that people witnessing mass traumas (9/11, natural disasters, shootings, etc), may move into the frozen state. The way out of the freeze is to complete the failed action of escape or threat defeat. Create an ending to the story, close it out, symbolically and in your imagination. It is done now. Go back to number 2.
  5. Do something to help. Donate time, resources, and energies to help people who are impacted. Even if your assistance is not directly related to the event or situation, helping ANYONE who has been negatively affected by anything or simply offering assistance to people in need is empowering and gets us out of the state of helplessness (which drives trauma). 
  6. If you continue to feel dysregulated over time in your nervous system – anxious, numbed out, depressed, easily irritated or angered, etc – you may need some psychological or medical assistance. There are great resources available. If you want to learn more about what’s available, feel free to contact us for a resourse list.

If you have life trauma – which all of us do – it’s hard to escape the impacts. These life events imprint our brain very deeply and tell us, for future reference, that we don’t want to experience anything like that again. Yet ironically, the brain will continue to draw us toward the very thing we don’t want. Part of that is the need to complete unfinished endings or things that ended poorly. 

Combat veterans often yearn to go back to combat. Cops want to get back out on the street, and fire-EMS want to get that next call. The endorphins that go with activation of the nervous system can be very compelling. Disaster/trauma junkies online and via various media are little different, though are often armchair experiencing the whole thing rather than actually doing something in relation to the event(s).

I've called this “Virtual Traumatic Experiences”, in which we see and “feel” events via cell phone videos and broadcasts of what’s happening, then get the added bonus of news media playing it over and over and over for our consumption. When we stop watching, the brain can be flooded with endorphins, just as your system can get flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone, just from seeing/engaging with the event. 

Remember, the next time something like “this” happens again – and it will – see what you need to see and then withdraw from watching, move your attention into the present, create a sense of completion, and take action to help someone or something to make a difference. Working effectively with these situations can be empowering, which is the antidote to trauma. You will empower yourself when you take charge of where you direct your attention.  This act can keep you in the present, in your body - and not checking out. Living a dissociated life isn't living at all.