Horror in real life: how do you cope?
February 10, 2014 8:19 PM   Subscribe

When I encounter stories of egregious abuse or torture or cruelty, I often feel sickened and disturbed for hours or days or until I get used to the fact that yes indeed, someone could (fill in the blank) to another human being or to an animal, and they did.

Intellectually, I know that these are anomalies and that I should be more concerned about economic inequality and deforestation and war. Yet stories of isolated cruelty and abuse can send me careening into depression and anxiety, conditions that I am prone to. Sometimes I worry that these things could happen to my friends or to me or to my (adult) children, and yes, I know that this is even less likely than a lightning strike. I do try to avoid these stories, but sometimes I come across them unwittingly -- and sometimes I just click on the damn link despite knowing better. What do healthy, optimistic people tell themselves when they read a true life horror story?
posted by summer sock to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I tell myself not to click on the damn link next time.
posted by nixt at 8:26 PM on February 10, 2014 [13 favorites]

Cognitive behavioral therapy deals with the "worry that these things could happen to....." thoughts as distorted thinking. The event you read about triggers an automatic thought ("this could happen to...." ).. which triggers an emotion and then a response (anxiety?)... the key is to examine that initial thought as to it's reality/likelihood/basis in truth and adjust the response accordingly. Check out this.
posted by HuronBob at 8:27 PM on February 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Don't click the link.
posted by radioamy at 8:28 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

What do healthy, optimistic people tell themselves when they read a true life horror story?

I don't know that I am a paragon of a healthy or optimistic person but I can tell you how I deal with this, because it is really disturbing to me too.

I don't think that cruelty and abuse are anomalies and I don't think it is possible to compartmentalize them from war or corporate greed or anything else. I think some people care more about others and some people care less; separately, I also think that some people have more of a propensity for violence and some people have less.

But I think that both of these things are affected at least in part by the environment, circumstances and culture that a person grows up in, and lives in.

And, thinking about it that way, I feel a lot less helpless about it and bewildered about what to do. Because I can join the efforts in my city to assist parents, so that they can make a living wage and have secure housing, so that they can get treatment for addiction, so that they can get mental health care. Because I believe that sometimes, there are parents who become abusive and neglectful because they are pushed to their breaking point by life circumstances, when they might not be otherwise. Or, that parents may allow predators and abusive people into their lives, out of desperation, when they might not if they were in a more stable situation.

I can join the efforts in my city to support children, to make sure protective services is funded, to make sure children are getting the medical care, including mental health care, that they need. To make sure they can get good educations and get good jobs. To make sure they are in a school atmosphere where bullying and violence is in check.

And I can join worldwide efforts to make sure that children are getting enough to eat, to try to end wars that are sucking in children as combatants, or forcing them to grow up in an atmosphere where rape and killing is normal.

Those are all things that we can concretely do, and I think that they help.
posted by cairdeas at 8:33 PM on February 10, 2014 [23 favorites]

If it's any consolation, I'm the same way. Some times it takes several days before I feel "right" again after encountering a particularly terrible story.

Cute Overload sometimes helps.
posted by coffee and minarets at 8:34 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also think that one concrete thing we can do is destigmatize mental illness and the need for mental health care, and really work to make sure it is well-funded. So many parents recognize it when they have a child who is dangerous and needs help, but they have inadequate support and there are inadequate resources.
posted by cairdeas at 8:38 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

You feel compassion for the suffering of others and cut out any anxious worry-worry thoughts about yourself / your loved ones.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:50 PM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry I came off kinda snarky above. I am super duper sensitive, and I cry at everything. I just avoid unnecessary stuff that will make me upset. It's not worth it.
posted by radioamy at 8:50 PM on February 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think of it as a spiritual exercise and behave accordingly.

At 43 years old, as someone who worked in media and politics, and still keeps a hand in...

I know that at any given moment there is inhumanity occurring somewhere, near or far, in any moment. I spend a moment or two or five every day connecting with this.

Then, in my own dealings, and even in my thoughts, I try to provide an antidote.

Random acts of kindness, awareness of what is going on without getting too riled up (which just adds to the misery if you get sucked in) and so on.

I just try to do GOOD.

I refine all the places where I may be a hypocrite. I try not to buy from companies that pay workers poor wages or have shitty business practices. I work on my own cognitive dissonance about these things. I'm finding myself turning away from entertainment that glorifies anti-heroes or normalizes sociopathy, or violence.

I can't change the world. I can only change myself.

Hope this helps.
posted by jbenben at 8:59 PM on February 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

I know how you feel. I'm still vividly haunted by Eli Wiesel's "Night" eight years after reading it, and there is still an image of the Rwandan genocide that made the front page of the Washington Post way back when that guts me to think about (a toddler on the ground, sobbing inconsolably, trying to wake up a mother who will clearly never wake up).

This seems facile, and it's a Mr. Rogers bit for children--but it got trotted out again after the Newtown massacre and it's a slender reed to hold on to when humanity seems irredeemable:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
posted by blue suede stockings at 9:00 PM on February 10, 2014 [26 favorites]

Following on from the Mr Rogers quote, which I really like, and a bit of what cairdeas and jbenben are saying as well - try to BE a helper. You don't have to necessarily work with torture victims or something, but try to find a way to add to the good in the world rather than the evil. You can never tell what impact it will have.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:48 PM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am like you, OP. I don't think I get over these facts. They are very sad and very disturbing. I never knew there was a hostage situation and massacre at an Olympics until this morning when NPR did a story about it. Now I've read all about the 1972 Olympics and thought about it all day, like a dumb ass. Sometimes I am amazed of what people are capable of and feel drawn to read about it, even though I know it'll end up haunting me.

I think I try to talk myself down by acknowledging that these things are news because of how rare they are. That human nature generally isn't to do these things. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that these things do happen, but it helps me realize that it's unreasonable to live life afraid or preoccupied with the idea that these things will happen to me or someone I love. It helps me realize that I shouldn't believe ANYONE is capable of those things, only a few. Everyday typical life, at least for a lot of us, is filled with good people. I try to think about that.

And when I can't stop thinking about an article I read, I just watch old episodes of The Office and distract myself until I get over it. Hah.

But I also try not to click the damn link. Sometimes I still do, but many times I see a disturbing headline and immediately GTFO. I am pretty sure I've saved myself a lot of anguish. I'll recall a disturbing thing I read about years after the fact so I've increasibly tended to be good about avoiding the stuff that are just disturbing anomalies. I also have done small things like on TweetDeck, I filter out any tweets that mention words like murder, molest, etc. I want to follow my local news, but there's some stuff I don't need to see. I avoid certain websites that I feel are obsessed with shocking, sensationalist crime news. Etc.

It also helps to waste less time on the internet being bored and clicking around. Having purpose helps me stay away from crap. Even if it means I stick to the Parks & Rec forum on Television Without Pity and I am still wasting time, at least it is intentional and planned timewasting.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:25 AM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with cairdeas and a few others here - both that these things are not anomalies, and that you absolutely can do things to help. At the risk of being unintentionally harsh: you can avoid these stories, or you can watch them and get anxious about it and hope it doesn't happen to you and yours, but I'm sorry to tell you that it actually could happen to you. I know because some of them happened to me. No one is immune.

There's plenty you can do about it, though - and yes, you could just stop looking too - but I actually think you are doing something by just acknowledging and accepting that that such horrors exist, and by not turning a blind eye toward them, despite the horror it elicits in you. Just by doing so, you educate yourself a bit about what's happening, and if you talk about it with others, you are thereby raising awareness too, which is both simple and quite powerful in itself.

I am hugely sensitive to the horror stories on the news because they not only justifiably horrify me in themselves, they also trigger actual past experiences of complete terror and utter helplessness, and furthermore tell me that I sometimes escaped the same fate only by sheer dumb luck, or by accident of my birthplace in the world. But here's the kicker: that Mr. Roger's quote about 'helpers'? While that's a lovely way to watch these news stories and take something good from it, I also know that absolutely nothing helps me alleviate my own anxiety and terror and fury and overwhelming sadness and past hurt more than offering to help someone else who's going through it. I AM a helper. Understanding what it's like to suffer through terrible shit for a long time has had the marvelous result of just making me want to help other people pull through their terrible shit. I feel lucky to have escaped worse, and I want to try to spare someone else from ever having to go through what I went through and what I was spared. And I know even little stuff helps: simple kindness, an ear, a smile, an acknowledgement of pain. But I definitely needed more concrete help back in the day too, and I mostly didn't get it. So now I give MY help to other people instead, because maybe that will help SOMEONE get what they need, right when they need it, and maybe that even means they (or their kid, or their pet) won't be that horrifying story on the news. I volunteer at food pantries, shelters, kill-pounds, community centers, trafficking and child prostitution prevention seminars.... whatever feels like it might actually help somebody. And they help me right back, because I never fail to walk away feeling way, way better about life and the world and the huge number of excellent people out there in it. It restores my faith in humanity every damn time.

All of this is to say: paying attention to this stuff IS sickening and disturbing and unsettling. But I've also found that paying attention to and trying to personally change the things that deeply trouble and terrify me is my greatest hurt, my most powerful fuel, and my greatest healing, all wrapped up in one.
posted by involution at 5:29 AM on February 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Finding a way to help others and see the good in the world is a good and positive step, but it's still useful to find a way to avoid some of the mental pain. One thing that worked for me when I was in a situation where I couldn't avoid hearing about terrible things was to try to immediately play an online game for a few minutes. The strategy is based on this brief article. It may be placebo, but I find it helpful for not getting images stuck in my head.
posted by korej at 6:16 AM on February 11, 2014

I also get wacked out at some of the inhumane things people do to each other and to animals. The recent decision to kill a giraffe by a Danish zoo, was so horrific for me, I couldn't read anything or see any news report about it. I thought it was so callous.

If it comes up in conversation I just say "I can't talk about this any longer." Or I will disengage if online.

All that being said, there are a couple of things to consider here: one is the intensity of your feelings. I would say that the majority of people have a difficult time with inhumanity. But if your feelings are intrusive or affect you deeply and for a good amount of time, then I would agree with HuronBob, above: talking to someone about these feelings can help.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:47 AM on February 11, 2014

I am super-sensitive as well. I don't watch the news, and I don't click on any links. I change the channel when the ASPCA commercials come on. I am also in treatment for anxiety.

I am one person and I can't save the world. I can make small contributions in the way I live my life. I help people when I can. I support certain groups (amnesty international, habitat for humanity, the red cross, the ASPCA.)

I wish I had the capacity to take on deforestation, genocide and other large topics, but I know my limits. I can't.

I recommend that you be evaluated for depression or anxiety, as those things can cause one to be overly affected by news stories.

I recommend that you get distance from these things. As a human, you can only deal with what you can deal with, so keep your distance. I learned this while working in the Emergency Room. Being dispassionate means you can help more people.

I often shush Husbunny if he wants to tell me something disturbing, because I know I'll dwell too long on it.

Some of us need to keep our heads in the sand, to keep our heads.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:13 AM on February 11, 2014

I would twist Ruthless Bunny's last statement just a little: "Some of us know what's good for us."
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 7:51 AM on February 11, 2014

I think taking care of oneself is important. Making sure you are good to yourself, and getting your own needs met is not selfish, but rather it is a way that you can lessen suffering (your own) in the world.

Beyond that, be good to others. Treat others with kindness, don't be quick to judge and be polite to strangers. These things may seem trivial, but kindness can make a huge difference in the life of another.

Beyond that, maybe you can pick a human or animal rights cause and do what you can to help- adopt a pet, volunteer, donate money, stop eating meat, send books to prisons, write letters in support of causes, etc. These may seem like they won't have much of an impact, but if everyone did something like this, the impact would be big.

I think it's important to know about the suffering and oppression that goes on in the world, but I also don't think one needs to know graphic detail of suffering, especially if it's going to make you depressed (it does to me). So I think in that case, "not clicking on the story" is fine. Also, there is positivity in the world and I think reading those stories is helpful because it can lift our moods and motivate us to be kind to others and lessen suffering.
posted by bearette at 8:34 AM on February 11, 2014

1. expose yourself to less horror (yep, don't click the link)
2. have on hand a bank of uplifting, positive, hope-affirming things and stories to remind yourself that other things happen in the world.
alternatively 3. make really dark, cutting jokes about it. i work in a correctional setting full of violence and cruelty and have been pretty ok dealing with a combination of 2 & 3 since i can't really accomplish 1 without quitting my job, and i don't want to do that.
posted by zdravo at 11:39 AM on February 11, 2014

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