How you can cope with toll that disturbing images take on mental health

Expert explains that images of death, brutality are part of ‘collective trauma’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The images from the last few months are some of the starkest and most unsettling in recent memory -- from the coronavirus outbreak to the protests and violence erupting across the nation after the release online of videos showing the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

The almost constant exposure to those unsettling and sometimes frightening scenes can take a toll on our mental health.

It’s no secret that navigating through these times can be difficult, especially when it’s nearly impossible to avoid seeing disturbing imagery almost every day.

“Not being OK is OK,” said Kenecia Muller, a licensed mental health therapist and certified clinical trauma and addiction professional.

Images of death, violence, brutality, and hatred have been filling the screens of TVs, computers, and phones daily.

They can be difficult to escape under usual circumstances -- but especially during times of unrest.

“This is more collective trauma. Meaning that the experience lived is affecting people on a much bigger level," Muller said. “And not just watching it but being reminded of one’s own personal experiences. Being concerned with who is going to be the next name -- that’s collectively a lot of what people are feeling. Again, it’s not someone else’s trauma that I’m watching. It’s a trauma that I’m experiencing that’s connected to the loss of this young man.”

A shared societal trauma that for many is a constant reminder of reality.

“People keep labeling this as anger. Anger is what we call a secondary emotion. It’s connected to so much more than that. It’s grief, it’s anxiety, it’s depression and those feelings are interchangeable and they’ll occur at different times," Muller said. “They manifest different ways in different people. So you have to find an ongoing healing plan that works for you. Because, unfortunately, even when the coverage of this dies down, this is still very much a reality for a lot of people. And so usually when we’re addressing trauma, we address it when safety has been established. It’s really difficult to establish safety when this is your experience.”

Muller said letting emotions out in a healthy manner is a positive way to cope.

“If you need to cry, cry. Whatever that emotion is that needs to come out, please let it come out in a way that it’s not held in," Muller said. “Because we will start to manifest all kinds of physical ailments from that because anxiety, grief, depression -- they show up physically after a while if we don’t manage them.”

Muller suggested a way to deal with the emotions you’re feeling is to connect with people, spiritually or with nature, however, that looks for you.

Exercise if you feel safe doing so. Yoga and meditation can be done from the comfort of your home.

"We recommend those as a way of grounding yourself because there’s really no way to get over this, but there’s a way to ground yourself at this moment so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed, " said Muller.

While the times aren’t easy, Muller said, it’s important to listen to what you need during this time.

You are the expert on you. She said there’s no right or wrong way to navigate -- just a right or wrong way for you in that moment.

So however this navigation looks, it is important to find a way to cope that is healthy and sustainable day by day.

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