Managing the Indirect Exposure to Traumatic Material
Protecting the Protectors: support for content moderators, analysis, researchers and journalists.
Imagery from war zones, terrorist activity, sexual violence, crime scenes, and cruelty to animals will have an impact on our mental health. Reactions such as disgust, helplessness, anger and despair are not uncommon and can lead individuals to experience intrusive thoughts and difficulty sleeping. (See our previous blog describing the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma – https://fdconsultants.net/vicarious-trauma-support/). For some journalists, content moderators, forensic analysis and researchers, exposure to this material is a daily occurrence.
‘We know from trauma research that the greater the sense of control people have over how they experience traumatic exposure, the more resilient they tend to be’. (Hartley et al, 2010, & Hobfol et al, 2007)
At FD Consultants we ‘Protect the Protectors’ as well as ‘Care for the Carers’. This means we are supporting humanitarian workers, emergency first responders, journalists, and we have several client organisations whose staff have roles as content moderation, forensic analysis and online researchers. We are supporting staff who protect us from accessing horrific material online including, terrorist exploitation, violent extremism, human trafficking, gender-based violence, child exploitation, hate speech, war crimes, and many more online harms. This exposure to traumatic material will have an impact, therefore we need to protect these staff by providing high-quality trauma specialist care.
At FD Consultants we do not only embed psychological support services into the fabric of an organisation, but we also help with the development of duty of care policies. When I facilitate FD Consultants trademark ‘Trauma Awareness’ workshop we explore support needed pre, during and post specific high intensity projects. Below we share some of our guidance.
- Psychological Screenings – Many of our client organisations request yearly psychological screenings for staff identified in ‘high-risk’ roles due to the level of exposure to traumatic material. These appointments are supportive and monitor an individual’s wellbeing and can signpost staff to further support if needed.
- Become Trauma-informed – Attend a ‘Trauma Awareness’ workshop, so you can identify signs and symptoms for yourself and your colleagues and develop resources to take care of yourself. It is helpful for individuals to learn simple breathing exercises and grounding techniques.
- Preparation meeting – Discuss the potential to exposure of trauma material, explicitly name what might be involved. Therefore, individuals can make an informed choice about how much involvement they have. Clarify the ‘trigger warnings’ and psychological risk. Discuss safe practices and review duty of care policy.
- Anchors – Create, what we refer to as ‘anchors’, which are objects that remind us to take good care of ourselves, for example, quotes or mantras around your desk space, images of holidays you went on, specific songs you like to listen to, pleasant images to look at, diffusers with calming scent.
- Know what support is available – Know what support your organisation can offer you, and how to access it, if you feel impacted by the work.
- Know your personal triggers – Know what your personal triggers are, and what material you can and cannot work with. Give yourself permission to say ‘No’ if you know the material is going to be triggering.
- Create a wellbeing plan – At FD Consultants we offer our RESPECT resilience model (Dunkley, 2018). This acronym is based on ‘respecting ourselves’ and ‘prioritising our own self-care’. In a personal wellbeing plan write down all your resources and ways of taking care of yourself. If you want to find out more about our RESPECT resilience model read our blog: https://tinyurl.com/bdfbphk9
- Toxicity – Think of traumatic imagery as if it is radiation, a toxic substance that has a dose-dependent effect. Journalists and humanitarian workers, like nuclear workers, have a job to do; at the same time, they should take sensible steps to minimise unnecessary exposure. (DART, 2014)
- Protection – Think of ways to protect yourself from this toxic energy. For example, take regular breaks, shake it off, move the body, wear shoes only when exposed to material, change clothes. When I worked in a Sexual Forensic assault unit, we had to change our scrubs and shower between every case. I now realise how protective this was not only for preventing forensic cross-contamination, but also for our psychological wellbeing.
- Reduce intensity of content – change settings on your computer to make it less impactful. For example, mute audio, blur images, remove colour, reduce size of window, adjust screen brightness, make images black and white, block out the most distressing parts of the image (post it note of screen).
- Dual awareness – try to have something in eyesight that allows you to change focus, i.e. a living plant, or a view out of a window (Park et al, 2016). Additionally, use ‘distraction files’ i.e. videos of cats, dogs, or nature.
- Trigger warnings – Always use trigger warnings when sharing information. Review labelling of information.
- Consider level of exposure – Minimalise unnecessary exposure, set a defined limit to the amount of time spent reviewing the most upsetting categories of content. Frequency of viewing may be more of an issue than overall volume (Cohen and Collens, 2013, & Feinstein et al, 2014). Set a defined question as to why you are viewing this material and stay focused only on material that helps you answer the question.
- Use the best hours for the worst content – This refers to using the hours where you feel most energised, perhaps the middle of the day, when viewing highly intensive content. Our brains are less effective at processing traumatic material when we are tired (DART, 2017)
- Rota work – It is important to rota the work within the team. Also, if you are feeling impacted take time-out and focus on lower-level tasks.
- If you become impacted – Stop, give yourself permission to take a break. Let someone know within the organisation. Check in with your breathing, has it become shallow, deepen your breathing. Refer to your wellbeing plan and use one of your resources.
- Transitional period – When you complete an intensive piece of work, or at the end of your working day, create transitional acts such as, going for a walk, washing your hands/face, changing your clothes, placing a cloth over your laptop. Create buffer times between the next task. As Babette Rothschild, a trauma specialist, describes the importance of ‘putting the brakes’ on when working with trauma (Rothschild, 2000), we need to create pause moments throughout our working day.
- Simple rituals, deliberative pauses, and other acts that build in a certain amount of distance from content can help cultivate a sense that one is in charge of the material, rather than the other way around.’ (DART, 2017)
- Washups – Every project should end with a ‘washup’ session. Exploring learning points, identifying concerns and challenges, reminding people of what support is available, and providing a sense of conclusion and acknowledging the successes of the project.
- Avoid traumatic material outside of work – Trauma material can be addictive as it fuels our adrenalin. I deliberately watch light-hearted, and funny material outside of work, to help regulate my system. Humour can be helpful and can create a sense of camaraderie.
- Debriefs – You may be offered a practical task focused debrief, but also consider psychological debriefs with external professionals to offer psychoeducation and provide a sense of cohesion and closure to a project.
- Check-ins – It is important that managers check-in with staff on a regular basis. Research has shown that 30% of people can have a delayed response to trauma.
- Ceremony – Some individuals I have supported report feelings of loss, guilt, and grief, when exposed to material on traumatic death. I often advise individuals to find a ritual which might help them find a way to ‘let go’, ‘lay them to rest respectfully’. An example of this may be lighting a candle, saying a prayer, throwing a pebble in the sea/river.
Fiona Dunkley, MBACP (Snr. Accred.) UKRCP. ESTSS. EMDR.
Founder FD Consultants – Psychosocial Support & Trauma Specialist Services
Date: June 2023
- Cohen, K., & Collens, P. (2013). The impact of trauma work on trauma workers: A metasynthesis on vicarious trauma and vicarious posttraumatic growth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 5(6), 570-580. doi:10.1037/a003038
- DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma. (2014). Working with Traumatic Material. ACOS Alliance. https://dartcenter.org/content/working-with-traumatic-imagery
- DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma. Rees, G. (2017). Handling Traumatic Imagery: Developing a Standard Operating Procedure. https://dartcenter.org/resources/handling-traumatic-imagery-developing-standard-operating-procedure
- Dunkley, F. (2018). Psychosocial Support for humanitarian aid workers: A Roadmap of Trauma and Critical Incident Care, Routledge.
- Duran, F., Woodhams, J. Impact of Traumatic Material on Professionals in Analytical and Secondary Investigative Roles Working in Criminal Justice Settings: a Qualitative Approach. Journal of Police Criminal Psychology (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-022-09532-8
- Feinstein, A., Audet, B., Waknine, E. (2014). Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom. JRSM Open, 5(8) 1-7. doi: 10.1177/2054270414533323
- Hartley, C. A., & Phelps, E. A. (2010). Changing fear: the neurocircuitry of emotion regulation. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(1), 136-146, p139-142;
- Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell, C. C., & Bryant…, R. A. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid–term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), p293-6.
- Park, S.-A., Song, C., Choi, J.-Y., Son, K.-C., & Miyazaki, Y. (2016). Foliage Plants Cause Physiological and Psychological Relaxation as Evidenced by Measurements of Prefrontal Cortex Activity and Profile of Mood States. HortScience, 51(10), 1308-1312.
- Rothschild, B (2000). The Body Remembers: The psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. Norton.