‘Are you still watching?’: The Affects of Seeing Traumatic Events

Corey Emanuel
Jun 3 · 6 min read

When I first sat down to write about this topic, I considered not making it about race. After all, any insights relating to a deeper understanding of human behavior is really something that we all can benefit from. But Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, two unarmed black men, were recently murdered, and need this to be about them. Sixty-five years after his death, Emmett Till still deserves for it to be about him. Every black man needs it to be about him for once.

Arguably, there is not a single black person who isn’t emotionally exhausted from simply living inside their black skin — a weariness, perhaps, for many, resulting from being “in a rage almost all the time,” as James Baldwin once vehemently expressed. Black mothers dread the day their little boys transition into young men. Physically, we aren’t safe no matter where we are. At home eating a bowl of ice cream. During an afternoon jog. Lying down sound asleep. And on top of the fear of being accosted or even worse, murdered, for everyday human activity, we are also being disproportionately affected by the current coronavirus pandemic. How does one begin to fulfill the psychological need to belong in a world that seems hell-bent on reminding him that his life does not matter?

Sadly, being black and under attack is not new, and neither are the attacks being caught on camera and published for the world to see. In spring of 1991, the world stood still and watched as four white LAPD officers beat unarmed 25-year old, Rodney King, for 89 seconds after he was pulled over for speeding. The brutal beating was filmed using a Sony handheld camera and aired on CNN. It would be another decade before built-in camera phones or social media would become resources for disseminating such flagrant misconduct. At the time of the incident, civil rights leaders hoped that the images of King being savagely beaten would finally make just how unfair and unjust the US criminal justice system was towards black people palpable. Nearly 30 years later, black men continue to lament over the fact that what happened to King continues to happen to them every day, including former President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Sensational, ubiquitous and seemingly inescapable, our greatest fear is now available for streaming across platforms. A viral video where all we have to do is press play. But should you still be watching?

If you are anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself pondering these two questions:

1) Is it my responsibility to watch?

2) Should I post or share this with others?

Regardless of your response, this is what you should know.

Vicarious trauma — the transformation that occurs to your inner-self as well as your perception of the world around you as you consume traumatic narratives day after day — is real and so are its consequences on the state of your mental health, as well as the mental health of others

Seeing is one thing, but our perceptions of what we see can deeply affect us. The truth is, we attach meaning to what we see. Seeing another black man being murdered may trigger cognitive responses such as, “It’s just a matter of time before that happens to me,” or, “No matter what I do or how I act, I will always be viewed as a threat.” Furthermore, being vicariously exposed to stressful events or a threat, such as murder, may trigger an emotional response, specifically anxiety1. There are two possible anxiety types that may arise in times of perceived threat: state anxiety and/or trait anxiety. State anxiety can be described as the more temporary unpleasant feelings you may experience under a perceived threat. For many black men, these are the feelings of anxiety that start once you see red and blue lights, a white officer approaching your car, and throughout the interaction with a white officer.

Through the frequency in which we’re exposing ourselves and others to these traumatic incidents, we may experience increased risks of frequent anxiety (e.g. fear and worry), otherwise known as trait anxiety. Thus, trait anxiety describes those consistent, and often intense, anxious feelings you experience under a perceived threat across different situations. For many black men, your state of inner unrest and uneasiness could persist throughout a number of perceived threats, such as traffic stops, walking from the corner store, shopping at Wal-Mart or simply, holding a brush.

In consideration of the aforementioned research and real-life examples, we cannot underestimate the role our sources of information (e.g. TV, social media) play in our lives and how they influence our mental health. Black audiences watch the most television of any racial group — nearly 200 hours per month — roughly 60 more hours than the total audience2. We also spend close to 56 hours using apps or mobile Internet browsers on our smartphones and about two and a half hours watching videos on our smartphones2.

Because we already live in a state of anxiousness around being racially profiled and treated unfairly, we are often motivated to attend to news information regarding those topics. While consuming negative images have been shown to demonstrate a surge in both anxiety and sad mood, evidence3 also shows that indirect exposure to traumatic events through the media may be associated with increased risk of substance abuse disorders and PTSD.

The late poet, Maya Angelou once said: “Words are things. They get into the walls. They get in the wallpaper. They get in your rugs. In your upholstery. In your clothes. And finally into you.” I believe that negative images of black men being murdered can be likened to this same ideology. There is no looking at any of these videos and having the self-soothing reaction of, “Thank God that wasn’t me. I’m safe.” Instead, our reaction, most often is: That could have been me. I fear for my safety.

Black people know what lynching entails, no matter if it is a noose or a knee. From the black and white images of our ancestors that continue to circulate in history books and around the Internet to Eric Garner and now George Floyd, I think we’ve seen enough. Don’t you?

As you consider your responsibility to #StayWoke, I hope you will consider the psychological impact of seeing and sharing black men being murdered. Perhaps our primary responsibility now as black men in the fight for our lives is to help keep each other safe by first making sure we keep each other well.

Below are 5 ways I personally recommend maintaining your sense of well-being during times such as this:

1) Grieve. Cry. Yell. Do what you need to do for you. Vicarious trauma is real and can be painful.

2) Temporarily remove your news sources from your mobile device (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). You can easily add them back once you feel ready.

3) Mute text threads that prompt you to engage in discussions on the topic.

4) Meditate. Sign up for a free app to help calm your mind during times of distress.

5) Reach out to another black man, and be honest with him. Say, “I didn’t call to talk about what’s happening, I wanted to check on you.” And don’t be afraid to add, “I love you, man.”

References

1. Mcnaughton-Cassill, M. E. (2001). The news media and psychological distress. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 14(2), 193–211. doi: 10.1080/10615800108248354

2. Multifaceted Connections: African-American Media Usage Outpaces Across Platforms. (2015, February 3). Retrieved from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/multifaceted-connections-african-american-media-usage-outpaces-across-platforms.html

3. Henricksen, C. A., Bolton, J. M., Sareen, J. (2010). The psychological impact of terrorist attacks: Examining a dose-response relationship between exposure to 9/11 and Axis I mental disorders. Depression & Anxiety, 27, 993–1000. doi:10.1002/da.20742

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