The UNFPA Pakistan website states ‘A staggering 32 per cent of women have experienced physical violence in Pakistan and 40 per cent of ever-married women have suffered from spousal abuse at some point in their life (The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-2013).’ However, these statistics do not incorporate the unreported cases of gender based violence (GBV).
Recently our screens have been flooded with news of different episodes of gender based violence. This is defined as violence directed towards a person or people based on their biological sex or gender identity. When these violent attacks make headlines or even when women share stories of abuse on social media, although their aim might be to create awareness, to name and shame, or to vent, reading or hearing about them can lead to secondary trauma.
What is secondary trauma?
Secondary trauma is the emotional duress an individual may face as a result of indirect exposure to trauma. Indirect exposure may be in the form of hearing about the trauma from the individual who experienced it, or reading about the details in news and social media or even by looking at pictures of the traumatic event or of the victim.
Today, many women of our nation are experiencing this secondary trauma. Every time I use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, I come across stories of females saying that they can’t sleep, they have been crying or that now when they are out commuting they are hypervigilant about their surroundings and share their real-time location with friends and so on.
These can all be attributed to responses to secondary trauma. Even when I talk to friends, clients or students, this is a common theme in our conversations. Some signs of experiencing stress as a result of secondary trauma can be feeling numb or detached, irritability, anger, hypervigilant behavior, trouble sleeping, physical fatigue, reduced concentration, interpersonal and social withdrawal and so on.
A research that studied gender differences in susceptibility to secondary trauma found that females are generally more at risk to suffer from such traumatization as compared to males. One reason the researchers theorized was that females are either more empathetic or that they are more in tune with their emotions and hence are vulnerable to experience secondary traumatization.
It is important to consider that in the recent events the victims have all been young females or children. Thus, not only are females able to empathize with them, the fear that they can experience something similar is heightened. Any experience that females go through that is sexist reaffirms their fear that they are not safe and leads to symptoms or response of secondary traumatic stress.
The phenomenon is known to impact social workers, therapists, first responders and other professionals who work with trauma victims. However, a nation or a specific group of masses can experience this secondary trauma when they are not the direct victim but hear about the instances of trauma that their fellows have been. This is the stage that Pakistani women are currently experiencing.
How can we cope with these symptoms?
First is that one can practice self-compassion – i.e. do not suppress your natural feelings, in fact, acknowledge them and voice them to people you trust.
Next is to practice self-care. It is imperative to pamper oneself and engage in activities that make you feel happy. Engage in deep breathing exercises, physical exercise, meditation or other activities that can help calm your mind that might be stuck in a vicious cycle of fear and aggression.
Third, detach yourself from social media and news outlets that are focusing on and sensationalizing traumatic events. It is important to stay up to date, but you do not have to read each article or update it as soon as it is shared. Rather, set a time every day when you catch up on the news and updates regarding the cases and then detach.
Another possible coping strategy is to reach out to and build your social support. Try to take the time to talk to someone about your feelings and listen to them as well. Ask for help when you feel the need and do not be ashamed to do so.
You can even gather likeminded people and channel this anger or frustration towards campaigning for strategies to reduce gender based violence. Working towards a positive change can make one feel that they are contributing towards a much needed positive change and hence reduce the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that accompanies STS.
Lastly, I would like to add that it is ok to admit that you have been impacted by these incidents and feel the need to reach out to a professional for mental health care. I admit, that many Pakistanis feel that they cannot rely on mental health care providers thanks to Zahir Jaffer (and his mother). Yet, reach out for recommendations and talk to a professional who can listen to your feelings without judgment and bias. Counselors can enable you to better understand your feelings and aid in the formation of coping strategies and positive emotions.
The author is the founder and counselor at holistic minds, Karachi. She is a member of visiting faculty at IBA Karachi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.