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Some Tips to Handle Watching or Listening to Disturbing Material

A woman on the phone

[Editor’s Note: Every month, MCN’s Director of Witness to Witness, Kaethe Weingarten, PhD, shares stories, resources, and helpful tips to support health care workers during these ongoing unprecedented times. Dr. Weingarten also offers a twice-monthly newsletter, filled with resources, recent articles, and her news and views. Sign up for the newsletter and grab bilingual resources on the Witness to Witness webpage.]

We are all very often in the position of witnessing terrible events. Sometimes we have control of whether we listen or watch something disturbing, and sometimes witnessing is thrust upon us. In those circumstances that we have a choice, and we decide to watch or listen to something we know will upset us – which may traumatize or retraumatize us – there are some steps we can take to mitigate harm.

Clinicians are almost guaranteed in the course of their workday that they will encounter something disturbing or distressing and they will have no time to process it in the moment. They will have to move on to the next encounter. Allowing yourself to feel a moment of compassion for yourself for how hard, if gratifying, your work is provides better long-term protection against the harm of continual exposure to difficult situations than contracting into numbness. Some of the suggestions below work well after the fact; for instance, at the end of a day, you can still practice numbers six through eight.

  1. Make a clear decision about watching or listening. Before you turn to your news sources, remind yourself of the possibility of upsetting material. If you encounter a video while scrolling on social media, or if you turn on the TV in the midst of a news report, pause for a moment, check in with yourself, and complete the following before proceeding.
     
  2. Acknowledge before you proceed that you may be upset, traumatized, or re-traumatized.
     
  3. Decide whether your context is the best available one to watch or listen. Are there people around who could support you if you become upset? Do you need to be alone to process on your own? Are there people you need to take care of, or work you need to do, such that you won’t have enough time to take care of yourself? Let your answers guide your timing.
     
  4. Identify a reason for your watching or listening. A reason might be:
    1. I want to be informed.
    2. I feel it is my moral obligation to witness this event.
    3. I need to know about this for my work.
    4. This is of historical significance and I want to know about it.
    5. Others I know have watched or listened, and I want to feel I am part of a community.
       
  5. Decide on an intention before you watch or listen. An intention might be:
    1. I want to learn enough so I can do my job.
    2. I want to learn enough to feel I understand the situation but don’t need every detail.
    3. I want to stop watching or listening if I can feel myself getting too upset.
    4. I will dedicate my watching or listening to all the people who have been harmed by this event.
       
  6. Remind yourself of three comforting things you can do right now should you need soothing after your watching or listening. W2W has a handout on comforting activities. You can find it here
     
  7. After you have watched or listened, take an inventory of how your body feels and your emotional state. Do you feel tightness in any part of your body? Can you deliberately breathe into that part of your body to relax it? Are you sad? Angry? Freaked out? Spaced out? Use your comforting activities.
     
  8. Put into words – to yourself, to someone else, on your computer or phone, on a piece of paper – what is most upsetting for you.
     
  9. Congratulate yourself on doing what you wanted to do safely.

This is an example of how a person can use these steps. I used them to watch the four-minute video of the Uvalde shooting produced by the Austin American Spectator. I read about the video and thought about whether I would be alone or with a grandchild when I watched it. I knew I would be alone, so I decided to go forward. My reasons, as outlined in number four above, were A through D. My intentions, from number five, were A through D. I looked around to see whether my comfort needs were available: looking at nature (check), sipping a cup of tea (check), and taking three deep breaths with my eyes closed (check). After I watched the video, I was sad and angry. I relied on all three of my comforts. I told myself it was important to be informed and that I could now move on with my day. Then I decided to write this handout. It is my way of “turning private pain into public purpose,” which has been my mantra for decades.

I hope you will find these suggestions helpful and believe that some good does come from acting as a compassionate witness even when no one observes us being one. No one can be a perfect ally to all the people who suffer in this world, but we can all consider the possibility that registering the pain of others and aligning ourselves against it does contribute to making a positive difference.

I would like to hear from anyone who tries these suggestions as to whether or not they were helpful to you. Please email me at kweingarten@migrantclinician.org with your feedback.