The Secondhand Witness

You and I are the secondhand witnesses.

We may not have physically experienced the flooding in Houston or the fires in Montana, but we watched it happen on our screens. We watched as homes were swept away by the rain and families livelihoods were destroyed. We watched people being shot and teenagers committing suicide, and we witnessed heinous acts of violence on Facebook live. We are the secondhand watchers-- the silent witnesses of the terror the world has to offer. The screen is our shield but our minds carry us to the depths of darkness and destruction. Images are burned in our hearts and we want to believe that we can walk away and be the same.

Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and fear creep into our souls without making sense or having an identifiable purpose. How can a secondhand witness feel the pain of a wound not physically experienced?

Our secondhand dreams tell us we are not safe, that we will die and that we will lose. We see the images on the screen playing out their gruesome tale in our minds eye. Waking up is a relief but the feeling remains.

Society tells us it is not OK to cry, it is not OK to feel, and it is definitely not OK to be sad about something that did not happen to you. Shame scolds us for hurting and shame mocks us for noticing. We are not allowed to be human. We should be unfeeling and cold.

As a secondhand witness, we want to change to the outcome, we want to relieve their pain. But we are all trapped by the screen and the distance between us and the devastation. The feelings of helplessness and sorrow wash over us and we tuck it away. We keep silent in our secondhand suffering.

To numb the emotions that stir within us is to numb the rest of our souls. To grieve is to be human, as we are witnessing the loss of people, humanity, and safety. We painfully realize that life and security can be taken in a moment, without a warning. The world has shifted, it is impossible to remain the same.

We are the secondhand witnesses, we are the silent watchers.

Vicarious trauma is real. It is real and impact us. It is a term widely unknown, but our media-centered culture will eventually have to recon with the aftermath of prolonged exposure to trauma. In our attempts to become more connected, we have inadvertently exposed ourselves to being traumatized by knowledge.

Vicarious trauma is when our empathetic connection to the world exposes us to traumatic material in such a way that it changes our perception of safety, trust, and stability. The images, sounds, and detailed descriptions of trauma are carried with us, which can shift our worldview (Joyful Heart Foundation) . In the simplest of terms, vicarious trauma can feel as though the traumatic event has happened to you.*

It is easy to mock and to judge, but we are biologically wired to seek out safety and security before anything else. When our perception of life and safety are challenged, even vicariously, our inner experiences and cognitions change.

Never before have we been more exposed to disturbing and traumatic material than we are now. In the last year alone, we were exposed to the terrors that rocked the Syrian refugees, bombings around the world, people being shot, killed, raped, burned, hit by cars, drowned, etc. Many of of which were recorded and posted onto Facebook and other social media platforms.

So take a moment and answer these questions for yourself:

  • What do you notice happening inside you when you watch or read stories of human destruction?

  • Are you experiencing bad dreams related to things you have read about or seen on social media?

  • How much time and energy have you spent reading or viewing traumatic material?

  • Have you noticed that these feelings and experiences stay with you days, weeks, or even months after learning about traumatic events?

  • What does all of this mean for you?

Research has shown that exercise, yoga, mediation and mindfulness are powerful tools in releasing and coping with difficult emotions (more than just vicarious trauma!). Connecting to others and expressing your experience with trusted individuals is helpful in relieving stress and processing difficult feelings. A counselor can also help you navigate and cope with any difficulties that may arise due to exposure to traumatic material. As always, it is wise to limit your time on social media and the internet.

On a final note, I would encourage parents and caregivers to limit the exposure of trauma material to kids, especially kids under the age of 10. It is important to talk to them about what they are seeing and hearing about. Provide them a space to safely talk about their experience. Kids are HIGHLY susceptible to vicarious trauma. I have worked with a number of children that had issues related to things they saw on TV and on Facebook. Their brains do not have the capacity to process trauma in the same way that we do. I urge you to be very careful about what you choose to expose your kids to.

It is my hope that you feel more informed about the impact of social media on our hearts and minds. Vicarious trauma is real, and to ignore it is to deny our humanity. Our empathy towards others is what exposes us to being hurt, but it is also the most beautiful parts of ourselves.

*If you are interested learning about the research on vicarious trauma, the University of Bradford in London conducted a study on the effects of vicarious trauma, PTSD, and social media. They found that 20% of their participants experienced PTSD-like symptoms after viewing traumatic and disturbing material for long periods of time on social media. The participants in the study did not have any reported trauma in their personal history. You can find the study here.


Kylie Chaffin M.A., LMHCA, LLPC

Challenges in life often leave us feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and lonely. You don't have to do it alone. I provide a safe and supportive environment to discuss your concerns, discover your inner strengths and resources, and develop goals that focus on what matters most to you. I believe that counseling is a collaborative relationship built on trust, authenticity, and compassion. I provide services for a variety of issues, including: depression, anxiety, trauma/PTSD, abuse, stress, and postpartum depression. I have a Master's degree in Counseling and I am an EMDRIA approved EMDR therapist.

I am a licensed counselor in the state of Washington.

Click here to access my Psychology Today profile.

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