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Checking in With Friends After Bad News Can Help You Work Through Shared Trauma

Emphasize clear communication, and resist the urge to be an echo chamber.

by Gretchen Brown
January 15, 2021 | Love
friends talking on the phone. rewire pbs love checking in with friends
Credit: Antonio Rodriguez // Adobe

American culture is individualistic. We like to think we carry on best alone, like tiny ships all bound for different harbors.

Which is why we often stay silent when the sea has turned to lava. Exchanging I'm good, how are yous through gritted teeth. Thinking that sure, it's bad, but someone else probably has it worse. Worried to actually reach out for fear of further burdening our friends.

But ships don't get by without lighthouses and GPS and radio communication with other ships. We're far from lone vessels, even if it feels like it sometimes. 

Support can be crucial. But it's hard to know the best way to reach out, especially these days. The blows just keep coming. 

We're already living through a deadly pandemic. And last week's attempted siege of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., felt like a fundamental threat to democracy.

"You hope that under regular circumstances when you're having a hard time, there's somebody in your friendship circle, your network or your partner who's having a bit of an easier time," said Anjuli Sherin, a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

"And so bandwidth is shared, right? They hold space for me and then it'll be my turn. But I think right now, everybody is feeling it all together."

We're all living through a shared trauma. Checking in with your friends, then, might look different than it used to.

When checking in, make space, don't amplify

"Both of you are probably hyperfatigued and stressed, and grieving," Sherin said. 

"And I think maybe the first difference would be asking permission. 'Would you like to talk about this? Do you have the bandwidth, do you have the space and desire to talk about this?'"

That might seem simple. But making it a habit to ask preemptively gives your friend an out if they're not up for it.

It's a respectful thing to do, given the times we're in.

You don't need to hold yourself to checking in for the "right" reasons, either. Maybe you want to make sure your friend is doing OK. Maybe you're looking for some support yourself. Either is OK.

What's important is communicating your reason for reaching out to your friend so you can make a clear request.

a person looking at bad news during coronavirus. rewire pbs love checking in with friends
We're all living through a shared trauma. Checking in with your friends, then, might look different than it used to.  |  Credit: Antonio Rodriguez // Adobe

Something like: 'I'm thinking about you. It's a hard time. And I would love to make some space for you. Is that what you would like? Or, how can I support you?'

Your request can be similar if it's you who needs some support. Saying, 'I'm feeling overwhelmed, do you have 10 minutes for me to vent?' can be helpful to set expectations.

Sherin said friends often feel overwhelmed in these conversations, like they need to fix things. Setting expectations at the beginning, that you just need them to listen, can really ease the burden when checking in.

Diversify your support system

It's nice to find a friend who has a similar viewpoint who you can vent away all your frustrations to. It's comforting to talk to someone who experiences things just the way you are experiencing them. 

But it can also amplify the distress you both are already feeling.

"I think the alternate end of all this is it becomes an echo chamber of your own angst," said Bela Sood, a psychiatrist and senior mental health policy professor at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

To avoid an echo chamber, Sood said you should think about what you want the end goal of your conversation to be.

If you're checking in with a friend, Sood said, maybe the conversation should help calm things down for them. To be available emotionally in a supportive way.

Rather than letting all your grief fall on one person, Sherin said it's important to have a diverse basket of care for dealing with your emotions.

That might start with your own self-care routine, and broaden to your yoga class, your spiritual community, your book club, your volunteer group. And further to your close friends and family. 

"Especially in COVID when we're stuck with this one person in the house, or just a friend, that's where it can get really fatiguing or even stuck," Sherin said.

"So I think it's easier to come to our friends and the people close to us when they're a little bit more bolstered by a broader basket."

Stay mindful

After the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, Sood remembered the urge to stay glued to her television, watching the updates over and over. She was appointed by then-Governor Tim Kaine as a mental health expert on the panel investigating the massacre.

It doesn't always feel like enough to get the news from one source. Soon, you're watching the images on five different channels.

But there's a numbing sense to that kind of news consumption.

"I remember saying to myself that as a psychiatrist, I should know that I should not be watching this again and again," she said. "Because it serves no purpose."

These images aren't just images. They have a lasting effect on us. 

With any major, violent news event, such as the Virginia Tech shooting or last week's attempted siege, there's the possibility of vicarious trauma. So it's important to develop ways of experiencing these events without internalizing them.

"When the capitol was under siege, we all felt a sense that we are being harmed, that things will never be the same again. So it's an outrage and it's an assault on our own personal space," Sood said. 

"And so, being very mindful of, what are the exercises you can do to make your mind and your existence meaningful in that moment is, I think, really important, otherwise you get overwhelmed with it."

Mindfulness brings you back to the here and now. It doesn't mean getting rid of your outrage or stopping feeling. It means finding a place for it.

"Recognizing in your own world what it is you live for and what is positive and being mindful of that. If you've had a good cup of coffee, how do you savor that and feel good about it?" she said.

"Look into your own life and see, what are the good things that are happening? So you can capture that sense of humanity and the sense of who you were before all of this began."

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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