The sheer amount of police brutality appearing in the news and on social media in the past two weeks has no precedent in recent U.S. history. And the mix of protest, fear, outrage, sadness, and disgust that has greeted that footage extends far beyond the people who have personally been attacked by police with nightsticks, pepper spray, tear gas, and their vehicles. That police violence deeply traumatizes those who are targeted by it is obvious. But what about people who experience it vicariously? Can you also be traumatized by watching videos of real-life violence?
We put that question and more to Dr. Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, a Tampa-based therapist and expert in the psychological effect of trauma. She has written about mental health issues for the HuffPost, Psychology Today, Forbes, and other media outlets. Sarkis is also the author of the 2018 book Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, which discusses trauma as both a personal experience and as a characteristic strategy of authoritarian governments. “People who have been victims of domestic violence, or who have witnessed it, have told me that watching this footage is bringing up their own issues related to having been victimized,” Sarkis said. “That’s absolutely happening to people.”
We asked Sarkis to explain the emotional, physical, and psychological impact of trauma as experienced secondhand, especially as it relates to watching footage of George Floyd’s killing and the countless videos of police violence against protesters in recent days across the country. We also asked about the difference in public reaction between violent footage now and in the past, the psychological effect of a militarized police force, and what to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all.
Is there a basis in scientific fact for the idea that you can be traumatized by seeing images of real violence that didn’t happen to you personally?
Yeah, it’s called “vicarious traumatization.”
How does it work?
Sometime therapists, by talking with people who have been through trauma, can go on to have nightmares about the patient’s trauma, or other emotional reactions that impact our day-to-day lives. That’s one of the leading causes of therapist burnout. What large numbers of people are experiencing in this country right now from watching this footage is similar to what therapists experience after they’ve worked with people who’ve been in trauma.
It’s not post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the definition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association. Vicarious traumatization doesn’t qualify you [as suffering] PTSD. But it is acknowledged as something that does happen when you’re watching this kind of media.
There’s another piece to it, which is that if you’ve been through trauma yourself, seeing video of people going through trauma can trigger issues related to your own trauma, or symptoms of PTSD that you’ve had to deal with previously.
So if you were abused in the past by a partner or parent or someone else, your PTSD from those experiences could be triggered by watching video of police brutality, even if your trauma wasn’t actually caused by police brutality?
Yes. I’ve had people report that exact same thing to me. People who have been victims of domestic violence, or who have witnessed it, have told me that watching this footage is bringing up their own issues related to having been victimized. That’s absolutely happening to people.
A lot of people are reporting having nightmares about being abused by police right now. It’s not just people who have experienced it personally, from interactions with police or from being on the forefront of activism related to police brutality. It’s also people who have experienced other kinds of violence in their lives, particularly domestic violence. Those memories are coming back to people right now in a very vivid way.
How does that mental process work? Why do we look at footage of something that didn’t happen to us and think, “This feels like it’s happening to me?”
We are an empathic people. That means we can take on other people’s suffering. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and when we see pictures of it, it can affect some of us in a much deeper way. For most people, it impacts them to a limited degree. But [psychologists] have also been hearing about people who watch this footage and have somatic, or physical, reactions. Nausea. Insomnia.
What causes those more intense, physical reactions?
When you have a traumatic experience, the body tends to release a stress-inducing hormone called cortisol, which makes you feel really on edge and activates the sympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system, which acts under stress. That’s the fight-or-flight mechanism. We can feel that kicking in even if we’re just watching news videos online.
So if people are feeling physically and mentally wiped out at the end of the day, even if they weren’t out on the streets, it could be due to watching brutality videos?
Yes. Just the act of watching a lot of these videos over and over can wear you out, because you’re seeing human suffering on such a large scale.
How can people manage those debilitating feelings?
I tell people that it’s important to remember that you can turn [the footage] off. Being active and engaged around this issue doesn’t require you to watch police brutality footage over and over. When you are watching people commit violence against people who can’t really fight back, it creates feelings of helplessness. That’s related to what we’re talking about. That helpless feeling can be a part of vicarious traumatization.
Why does the public reaction to police brutality seem to be demographically wider this time than during previous eras when the news was focused on it?
There are a few things happening there. One is that the sheer amount of the imagery is so much bigger because everybody’s carrying their own little camera around. The odds of seeing it, not just once but a lot of times, are greater because of social media. In an earlier time, you might have seen a little bit of it on the news or seen photos in the paper, and that was it for the day. But now it’s coming at you all the time if you’re online. And there’s so much more of it whenever we log in again. There’s no escaping it.
Also, police brutality is primarily something that affects people of color in this country, and that’s how it’s been perceived, too. But the wider [demographic] range of footage means that the perception of who’s at risk is beginning to change.
And there’s one other part of this, too, which is the militarization of police departments. That sounds like it’s getting a little bit off the topic of psychology. I bring it up because when you’re dressed like military, you tend to behave like military. Meaning, if you already have somebody on the police force who has issues with power and control, and you dress them like a military person, that means you give them power and control. And then people who go into a protest intending it to be peaceful find themselves facing a line of police dressed in military gear, which sends the signal that they’re gonna hurt them. It’s an affront to the people who are protesting, because it represents the mentality that they’re protesting against.
Is there a certain point at which there is so much of this footage that it makes people more likely to join a protest? A point where the imagery becomes a call to action?
That’s possible on an individual basis. I think it depends on whether you’ve experienced violence in your own life — police brutality, especially, but also microaggressions if you’re a person of color. Those mini attacks that you get throughout a day can really wear you out by the end. It also has to do with any past history of abuse that you might have experienced yourself, even if it’s unrelated to the police.
There might be other triggers as well. That point in the George Floyd video where he calls out for his mother really affected a lot of people, because we all understand that that’s a universal reaction — you’re in great pain, and you cry out for your mom. That got across how terrifying his final moments must have been, the suffering that must have happened.
The other thing that set people off, too, is the non-feeling nature of the police who killed George Floyd, that they could be so detached when killing someone.
Do you get any indication from other mental health professionals of how police brutality footage is affecting people’s thoughts and dreams?
We do tend to talk to each other on a regular basis because of the high rate of vicarious traumatization. We discuss that it’s been happening to us and that we’re not the only ones who have experienced it. We’ve talked about the fact that other people have had nightmares about this footage, that people have experienced feelings of hopelessness as a result of it, and some people have felt suicidal. People have spoken to me about the footage bringing up past trauma. Some of them have been moved to talk about police brutality they’ve experienced, or that their family has experienced.
How can a person overcome vicarious traumatization?
Through action. We tend to do better in this situation if we feel as if we’re taking some kind of action, because it means we’re psychologically working towards bettering the situation.
Can the situation get better?
It’s possible. I think people are really coming around collectively to the realization that this is not something new — that it’s been happening for a long time, and it’s only now that we have lots of video of it. This is about realizing and accepting that yes, it’s true, some people are marginalized. Some people are more likely to be abused by police than others. And just because you don’t experience it yourself doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
This interview has been edited and condensed.