6 Things Online Trust & Safety Teams Can Do to Reduce the Stress of Working with Traumatic Imagery

By Tony Madril Therapy & Training, LCSW, PC

For many Trust & Safety teams whose responsibility it is to investigate potential violations to the rules of the online communities they serve, the “daily grind” often involves inspecting multiple images that have the potential to trigger highly distressing emotions such as horror, disgust, and fear due to the traumatic nature of the photographs and videos posted by sickly users of the online platform. A video showing a live beheading of another human being is one example of such traumatic images. Research suggests that repeated exposure to traumatic material creates a certain vulnerability for developing vicarious trauma or some form of traumatic stress[1]; therefore, it is imperative to the health and wellbeing of online Trust and Safety teams to have ready various practical tools and techniques to help mitigate the emotional burden of regularly working with traumatic imagery. Here are six tools I have developed for online Trust and Safety teams to help prevent vicarious trauma and other forms of work-related stress:

  1. Reconnect to the highest purpose of the job. Perhaps the highest purpose of the job for online Trust and Safety teams is to protect others from various types of harm. Remembering this when feeling discouraged by the number of people who are psychologically or financially harmed by online perpetrators may help to refocus the mind onto the positive impact you are having as a valuable member of a Trust and Safety team. Repeating a mantra such as: “Each day, I am doing my part to prevent traumatic material from spreading and causing more harm to others” may help to balance your perspective and settle your emotions.

 

  1. Release judgment. Feeling resentment toward a single identifiable perpetrator of harm, although understandable, may entangle you in a web of negative emotions, which may intensify over time. It may help you “let go” of this distress by viewing the images with a mindful sense of curiosity rather than judgment; recognizing the fact that there were likely multiple factors that ultimately led to the creation and perpetuation of these online images such as technology-related security flaws, the perpetrator’s own history of abuse, societal problems as well as those factors which may never be fully explained.

 

  1. Practice dual concentration. Refocusing a significant part of your attention away from the distressing image and onto a neutral point of focus such as the sensation created by caressing a polished stone or squeezing a stress ball. It might help to apply what I call the 60:40 rule to the situation where 60% of your focus is dedicated to examining the distressing image and 40% is dedicated to exploring the neutral object.

 

  1. Dis-identify with traumatic material. It might help to make it a conscious practice to regularly create a mental boundary between what you are personally responsible for causing and what you are not. For example, while reviewing traumatic material to complete a work assignment you might make it a point to say to yourself: “I did not create or cause this, this is not mine!” For some, it may even be helpful to accompany this comment with a specific type of behavioral ritual to further separate who you are from what you do, such as nodding your head or waving your hands as if to non-verbally say “no.”

 

  1. Practice self-compassion. You can practice self-compassion at work by making a personal decision not to become entangled with the traumatic images by using the tools mentioned above and by refraining from getting involved in the case beyond what is required. You might compassionately say to yourself: “This is not worth the harm it will cause me in the form of stress, fatigue, and physical ailments.”

 

  1. Create an end-of-the-day ritual. Creating tangible end-of-the-day rituals like immediately changing your clothes after you have signed-off from your work computer may help you to better separate your professional life from your personal life. In addition, it may help you accept and appreciate what it is you were able to accomplish for the day and “let go” of the rest like those things about your work that are outside of your control.

 

If you are interested in learning more about these tools or about the process of preventing vicarious trauma within online Trust and Safety teams, please feel free to contact me @ (323) 315-2598 or tony@tonymadriltherapy.com

1Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C. C. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological services11(1), 75.

 

What is CPT Really Like? How Can It Help Me with My Trauma?

Cognitive Processing Therapy or CPT is an evidence-based talk therapy for working through psychological trauma. It is a technique that I regularly offer my clients and one that I’ve found it to be very effective in resolving troublesome trauma-related symptoms like anxiety, depression, and panic-like sensations in the body. If you are curious about CPT or about the process of working through trauma, I invite you to listen to the podcast (accessible by clicking on the link) that lets you listen in on an entire course of CPT with a real client who wanted to share with others her journey through trauma therapy…

https://pca.st/S4erjj

Protecting the Protector: How Mindfulness Can Help Shield Trust & Safety Teams from the Harmful Effects of Online Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma and the Online Guardian

Vicarious trauma is a by-product of engaging in work that includes ongoing exposure to distressing images, sights and sounds as well as exposure to personal stories of trauma. Web-based professionals whose job it is to “protect” online communities from inappropriate material are regularly subjected to obscene, toxic, and exceptionally disturbing pictures, videos, online postings, distressing virtual conversations, and cyberspace crimes. Research suggests that repeated vicarious exposure to traumatic material creates a vulnerability for developing vicarious trauma or some form of secondary traumatic stress. This “vulnerability” may have deleterious effects upon the well-being of the online guardian’s personal and emotional life as well as their ability to deliver quality services to their clients over time. The following is a list of stressors often encountered by online trust and safety teams:

Stressors Unique to the Role of Online Guardian

  • Repeated exposure to emotionally distressing online content
  • Pressure to address a high number of cases due to the guardian’s unique skillset and the number of cases identified for investigation
  • Lack of understanding and support of the guardian’s work by the larger organization, and others, due to the novelty of the role
  • Inability to control the actions of online rule-violators and perpetrators
  • The constantly changing online landscape
  • The unusual time demands of online work

 

How Mindfulness Can Help. Mindfulness is a meditative practice that involves training one’s ability to pay attention to what is happening in the moment without reacting to elaborate mental stories about the experience and without reacting to distressing thoughts or emotions that may be present; instead, the experience is accepted without judgment or avoidance (Baer, Smith, Hopkins et al., 2006; Carmody, 2009; Dimidjian & Linehan, 2003). Similarly, mindfulness is associated with improvements in concentration and awareness of thoughts and feelings as transient mental and physical events rather than factual representations of reality that demand a response (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). In this way, online guardians trained in mindfulness can learn to witness traumatic material from a more distanced and less personal perspective that, overtime, allows for more reflective, intentional action and less impulsive “automatic” reactivity to the online traumatic material.

Practical Tools for Trust & Safety Staff

Enhancing Mindful Self-Awareness. As a specialist in vicarious trauma prevention and mindfulness coach, I have found that one of the first steps of preventing vicarious trauma in trust and safety teams is to help them begin to understand how they are relating to the traumatic imagery. The supportive team meetings I’ve facilitated and the individual supervision sessions with caring team leads have provided a safe space for team members to identify and reflect upon their automatic cognitive and emotional responses to witnessing traumatic imagery.
I’ve also found that offering team members opportunities to practice mindful sitting meditations designed to promote greater awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations can uncover unhelpful thoughts that create undue stress and impede work performance such as the stream of distressing thoughts that can occur (for some) when investigating a video containing scenes of child abuse: “If this could happen to this child…this could happen to my child…What if it does happen?” “Is my child in danger?”

Practicing Dual-Concentration. Being skilled at refocusing a significant part of one’s attention away from distressing images and onto a neutral point of focus can help to promote resilience and a greater sense of ease when trust and safety team members review cases involving traumatic imagery. This is called practicing “dual concentration.” Dual concentration is a mindfulness technique that a team member can practice simply by caressing a polished stone or squeezing a stress ball while working with a traumatic image. I suggest to team members that they apply what I call the “60:40 rule” to the situation where 60% of their focus is dedicated to examining the distressing image and 40% is dedicated to exploring the neutral or pleasurable object.

These are just two of the many tools and techniques I have adapted and designed to help trust and safety teams reduce work-related stress and prevent online vicarious trauma. If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness and related techniques may help prevent vicarious trauma in your team, you may contact Tony via e-mail @ tony@tonymadriltherapy.com or by telephone, (323) 315-2598.

Written by Tony Madril Therapy & Training, LCSW, PC

What are anxiety disorders and how are they be treated?

There are several types of anxiety disorders that a person may experience, which may cause any level of emotional discomfort and, in some cases, may become an obstacle to accomplishing daily tasks necessary for living. For example, the fear of being trapped in a public space where help may not be available, characteristic of Agoraphobia, may cause someone to become social isolated over time as a result of avoiding public spaces. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) lists seven other anxiety disorders, including:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Selective Mutism
  • Specific Phobia
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Substance/Medication-induced Anxiety Disorder

Some of these disorders may be more recognizable to you than others such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder characterized by uncontrollable worry about a number of situations and Panic disorder, which involves surges of intense emotion often accompanied by body sensations like heart palpitations, dizziness, and sweating. While each of the disorders listed above have trait symptoms unique to the specific disorder, they are all unified by intense worry and extreme focus on anxiety-related thoughts. For example, people suffering from anxiety may have rigid thoughts about the future that they can’t seem to get out of their heads such as: “What if I have a serious medical condition and die?” “What if I’m rejected?” “I’m a complete failure!” As such, first-line treatment for any anxiety disorder necessarily involves addressing these types of distorted thoughts with tools and techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a heavily researched type of talk therapy proven useful in working with these types of thinking errors. A psychotherapist trained in CBT will help you work through your anxiety by teaching you how to identify and challenge thoughts that typically trigger feelings of anxiety. CBT sessions are designed to help you develop the skills to successfully build resilience to acute anxiety in about 12-14 sessions.  Depending upon the severity of your anxiety symptoms, your CBT therapist may also recommend that you schedule a medication evaluation by a medical doctor to assess whether adding a psychotropic medication to your treatment plan may further help feel better!

I am a trained CBT-trained psychotherapist and having been using it to help hundreds of people successfully work through their anxiety over the 22 years I have been practicing in the field of behavioral health. Please feel free to call or e-mail me if you have any questions about CBT and how we might work together to resolve your anxiety-related problems.

Written by Tony Madril, LCSW, BCD

What is PTSD? Do I have PTSD? Can PTSD be successfully treated?

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event that involved serious injury, sexual violence, death or threatened death. Symptoms may occur immediately and may include any or all of the following: problems sleeping, flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, distressing body sensations, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Moreover,

Symptoms of PTSD fall into the following four categories:

  1. Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
  2. Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
  3. Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.
  4. Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping

If you have experienced these symptoms over a month or longer and notice that they have interfered with your regular day-to-day activities, you might consider seeing your primary care physician or a mental health professional who can help you determine if you qualify for the disorder and discuss how you might benefit from PTSD treatment.

If you believe that you might have PTSD, it may be helpful to know that there are several treatments that research has found to be effective in helping people work through their symptoms. Cognitive Processing Therapy or CPT is one such evidence-based treatment. CPT is a twelve-session, manualized treatment protocol which focuses on helping a traumatized person modify negative cognitions related to themes of safety, trust, power and control, and esteem and intimacy. CPT has one of the largest bodies of evidence to support its effectiveness than any other treatments for PTSD. Other research-based PTSD treatments are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, Prolonged Exposure (PE) and medication.

If you would like more information about PTSD treatment, you may contact me by telephone, (323) 315-2598, or by e-mail: tony@tonymadriltherapy.com

 

More Noticing and Less Reacting to Trauma

One way to begin to cultivate and maintain an active awareness of the many troubling manifestations of past trauma in your life is to periodically check-in with yourself throughout the day using a guided meditation called the Three Minute Breathing Space.
Borrowed from the evidence-based toolkit of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), this brief meditation can help you become more keenly aware of the presence of any trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and body sensations as a form of self-care and crisis prevention. Like a snow ball caught before it can roll down the mountain to pick-up size and speed, we can frequently use this meditation to proactively intervene when we notice subtle signs of trauma-related distress before they grow big enough to overwhelm us. You are welcome to give it a try if you would like by clicking the following link: https://binged.it/2SjacmG

Vicarious Trauma and Online Professionals

Vicarious trauma is a by-product of engaging in work that includes ongoing exposure to distressing images, sights, and sounds and as well as exposure to personal stories of trauma. Web-based professionals whose job it is to “protect” online communities from inappropriate material are regularly subjected to obscene, toxic, and exceptionally disturbing pictures, videos, and online postings, distressing virtual conversations, and cyberspace crimes. Research suggests that repeated “vicarious” exposure to such incidences places these professionals at high-risk for developing vicarious trauma or some form of secondary traumatic stress. This type of stress can have deleterious effects upon the well-being of the online professional’s personal and emotional lives as well as their ability to deliver quality services to their clients over time. The following is a list of stressors often encountered by the safety-focused cyberspace professionals:

Stressors Unique to the Role of “Cyberspace Guardian”

  • Repeated exposure to distressing online content
  • Pressure to address a high number of cases due to the guardian’s unique skillset and the number of cases identified for investigation
  • Lack of understanding and support of the guardian’s work by the larger organization, and others, due to the novelty of the role
  • Inability to control the actions of online rule-violators and perpetrators
  • Constantly changing cyberspace landscape
  • Unusual time demands of online work

How Mindfulness Can Help…
Mindfulness is a meditative practice that involves training one’s ability to pay attention to what is happening in the moment without reacting to elaborate mental stories about the experience and without reacting to distressing thoughts or emotions that may be present; instead, the experience is accepted without judgment or avoidance (Baer, Smith, Hopkins et al., 2006; Carmody, 2009; Dimidjian & Linehan, 2003). Similarly, mindfulness is associated with improvements in concentration and awareness of thoughts and feelings as transient mental and physical events, not as factual representations of reality that demand a response (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). In this way, cyberspace guardians trained in mindfulness can learn to witness distressing online events from a more distanced and less personal perspective, which may allow for more reflective, intentional action and less impulsive, “automatic” emotional reactivity.

Written by Tony Madril, LCSW, BCD

I offer specialized trainings for online professionals who are struggling with vicarious trauma and other types of work-related stress. If you would like more information about how vicarious trauma may affect the online professional, please feel free to contact me @ tony@tonymadriltherapy.com or by calling (323) 315-2598. 


References:

1. Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13(1), 27-45.

2. Carmody, J. (2009). Evolving conceptions of mindfulness in clinical settings. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), 270.

3. Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 15(5), 593-600.

4. Dimidjian, S., & Linehan, M. M. (2003). Defining an agenda for future research on the clinical application of mindfulness practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 166-171.

5. Garland, E., Gaylord, S., & Park, J. (2009). The role of mindfulness in positive reappraisal. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 5(1), 37-44.

 

 

Acceptance of Anxiety

What are struggling with in your life? Perhaps it is something painful that you want to end or get away from as quickly as possible. A physical pain. An emotional distress. A painful relationship issue. While it may seem easier to escape the pain by running from it or pushing it away, resisting it may only make matters worse. What if you could see the difficulty in your life as an opportunity to ease your suffering instead of intensifying it? Would you be willing to give it a try?
     Mindfulness practice encourages us to approach our suffering with an attitude of openness and acceptance. For example, by letting go of our expectation that we should not be having this pain…this particular difficulty in our lives, we release ourselves from the burden of having to makes things different, to change something that might be unchangeable; and this radical “shift” in how we relate to our difficulty may be enough to generate an immediate sense of ease about the situation that we may begin to notice as a relaxing of our muscles, a softening of our emotions, and a slowing down of our thoughts. Gently opening to the pain may allow us to see the situation, and our reactions to it, more clearly and cultivate the discovery of new insights into the difficulty we never imagined. Who knows, we might even discover that it was our particular reactions to the difficulty that was responsible for a large part of our suffering.

Exercising Choice & Past Trauma

Exercising Choice & Past Trauma

Saying “no” when you would typically say “yes”; replying to a friend or coworker: “let me think about it” instead of immediately deciding; leaving a stressful situation for a few minutes to find your center. These are all examples of choices you can make to promote your well-being when feeling cornered by circumstance. Choosing to place your needs first can have profoundly positive effects upon your life; it has the power to loosen old patterns that don’t serve you anymore.

What is more, if you have experienced any type of trauma in your lifetime, choosing to do something to take care of yourself in a moment when you are feeling “stuck,” can counteract the feeling of being “frozen” in your body. Feeling as though you cannot or should not move in a moment of distress is often a by-product of having experienced trauma and is very much related to the automatic “fight, flight, freeze” response you are probably familiar with. Making practical choices to take care of you when you think you cannot, can help to replace the constant replay button of trauma with a renewed sense of self-confidence and safety.

What choices can you make today to take better care of you?

Exercising Self-Compassion on “Bad Days”

Recognizing and accepting that, as a member of the human race we are inherently imperfect, and will, therefore, always be subject to the occasional “bad day” is perhaps one of the most practical things we can do to increase our sense of psychological wellbeing and resilience to life’s difficulties. It is easy (and sometimes oddly satisfying) to berate ourselves for falling short of the expectations we hold for ourselves; however, doing so may only intensify and prolong our emotional distress when we’ve made a mistake or somehow failed to fulfill our personal standards of accomplishment.

What if we could make another choice? Instead of harshly judging ourselves after a moment of vulnerability, what if we could do or say something to soothe our distress in the very moments of our crisis? In fact, the second element of self-compassion is recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through—not just “me.” As such, exercising self-compassion offers us a pathway out of our suffering by helping us remember that everyone has bad days, everyone makes mistakes…we are all unmistakably imperfect.

Exercising self-compassion also means connecting with people who support us in the very moments we need them the most. For example, calling caring friend or supportive family member and sharing the details of our crisis can help to break the sense of isolation we may feel as a result of judging ourselves; moreover, the other person’s unconditional acceptance of us “warts and all” makes it difficult to keep blaming ourselves. Like preventing an arrow from being shot and wounding us after we’ve already been hit, exercising self-compassion after we’ve recognized how we’ve harshly judged ourselves can help ease our suffering on those bad days when we need some extra help to regain our balance. What do you think?