“What a mess. Those poor people. How horrible. I’d like to help…but wouldn’t I end up just as messed up as the people on TV look? What about vicarious trauma? Compassion fatigue? Even PTSD?”
It’s true. Helping with disaster isn’t for everybody.
However, if you’re never been through disaster, and you base your perspective solely on what you see in the media, you may not have a balanced view. Dramatic scenes of damage, suffering victims, and emotionally overwhelmed emergency responders are the usual favored fare. They get the most press because they sell advertising space better than stories about those who rise to the challenge.
Tragedy catches our attention. Our brains are wired to notice the negative more than the positive. Most of the time this can work for the good. Without it, we might not notice significant threats to wellbeing in time to do something about them.
We’re not the only species with such a bias. Out in the forest, if one crow is continually raising a ruckus, eventually you hear a murder of cawing crows. Chimps in the wild become upset and gather around if they come across an injured or dying colleague. The tendency for species members to notice one anothers’ plight and feel the urge to do something is natural. It’s one of the ways in which disaster truly affects everyone.
However, there’s more going on than these processes of post-traumatic stress. There’s also post-traumatic growth.
Think back to your own life experiences. Did you learn or grow more when times were easy, or tough? Most people rise to the occasion when faced with challenges, rather than become too overwhelmed to go on. Most who do need to step back and lick their wounds eventually regroup and move forward. Traveling alongside those who rise victorious over their challenges is perhaps one of the most rewarding and uplifting experiences of the human spirit.
Vicarious growth: doesn’t that have a nice ring to it?
Only you can decide in which ways you feel comfortable reaching out to others during disaster. As you consider it, don’t be lead astray by media presentations that focus on little more than struggles with suffering. Also prominent are the perks of joining with community bonding and resilience.
For more on this topic, see “What is Post-traumatic Growth,” offered by Go Strengths.