Vicarious trauma is real and you may be feeling it after the riot at the U.S. Capitol
Ethan Reed, a senior at Parker’s Legend High School, was supposed to be tuned into his virtual classes Wednesday afternoon. Instead, he sat with his family glued to the TV watching a violent mob of Trump supporters break down barricades surrounding the nation’s Capitol and storm the halls of Congress.
The 17-year-old couldn’t believe what he saw. Reed, who is a youth political activist, visited Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2019 and walked the same hallowed halls that were being vandalized. He recently applied to a college near the Capitol with aspirations of going into politics.
But the riot dashed any excitement he had about that future. Instead, disappointment, sadness and then frustration set in as he spent time incessantly doom-scrolling for updates on social media.
“At this point in time, I’ve lost all respect for the United States,” Reed said. “I’m so disappointed with everyone in power right now, frustrated with everything that’s happening and it’s made me lose my hope and faith for this country.”
For Americans, like Reed, who are feeling hopeless, stressed or exhausted, know you’re not alone. Mental health experts said it’s normal after such an event — even for those who were not at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Vicarious, or secondary, trauma can occur simply by hearing about an event or watching videos of it on the news or online. It’s happened to people after other national disasters, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said Dr. Carl Clark, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health Center of Denver.
“It’s time to be really compassionate with each other,” he said. “People may not be the best right now because of the events that are going on.”
An example of loss
The reasons people feel this after Wednesday varies, but a lot of it is due to the feeling that their security and safety were threatened. Some people may have feared the loss of democracy in the United States. People of color may be triggered because police responded to the pro-Trump rioters with far less force and in fewer numbers than they did during last year’s racial justice protests, according to mental health experts.
“To have to be thinking about these kinds of things while we’re in the biggest spike of the pandemic ever, it just makes me really furious,” said Laura Anthony, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “It’s just wrong and so not what we need to be paying attention to right now.”
Americans of all ages are grappling with the scenes that played out in Washington, D.C., including kids. For children, it is important to talk to them about what they are feeling and remind them that they are safe.
But even that can be a challenge. The images of the rioters storming the Capitol and bypassing police officers as members of Congress took cover is frightening, Anthony said.
“This is really not the kind of image I think anyone of us expected to see,” Anthony said. “I think sharing the images on the news, of course it’s newsworthy, it is going to leave particularly for the younger kids, this feeling of lack of safety.”
And just as the reasons vary, so do people’s response to the event. People may be feeling mentally and emotionally drained, fatigued, anxious, ashamed, irritable and sad. They may also have a loss of appetite and struggle to sleep. They may even be feeling grief.
“Yesterday is another example of loss,” Clark said. “We always had a peaceful transfer of power in the United States and this event was sort of threatening our democracy and that is stressful for people.”
Those feelings may only be intensified by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the recent civil rights demonstrations and contentious election cycle. The Mental Health Center of Denver’s crisis line received 500 calls last week from people stressed out about the election and had more calls come in Thursday following the events at the Capitol, he said.
Apryl Alexander, an associate professor at University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, wasn’t surprised by how many people showed up to the Capitol to object to the election results. However, she did not anticipate seeing the crowd hop fences and scale walls to reach the federal building’s steps — especially with so few repercussions from law enforcement.
Alexander, also a community organizer with Black Lives Matter 5280, participated in the summer protests for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, at the hands of white police.
In the Denver region, several of those demonstrations escalated to violence as police used tear gas, pepper balls, rubber bullets and flash-bangs in response to crowds. An investigation into the Denver Police Department’s response found multiple examples of excessive force.
The disparities in how law enforcement reacted then compared to Wednesday cannot be overstated, Alexander said. And the effects have real psychological consequences for people of color.
“There are these spillover effects of racial trauma. So even if you’re not directly affected by racial trauma — for example, if it’s not family or friends that have been directly impacted — you still feel those effects watching it on TV and social media,” Alexander said. “With yesterday’s incident and people recognizing the disproportionate treatment of protestors compared to these domestic terrorists, that racial trauma is relived, especially for those who were exposed to it.”
What sticks with her the most is not the viral image of a Confederate flag being carried through the Capitol halls, but video of a police officer helping an insurrectionist down the stairs after being removed from the building.
“It’s another time in recent months where people are really recognizing that institutional and systemic racism are real, and not just the forms of racism that we’re used to, like racial slurs and work discrimination,” Alexander said. “It’s more than that.”
Strategies to decompress
There are strategies people can use to decompress after a traumatic event. Clark suggested “loving kindness mediation,” where an individual focuses on a person or animal they care about and repeats four “wishes” for them to be happy, healthy, safe and to take care of themselves. Gratitude journaling, which entails writing down several things you are grateful for daily, also helps alleviate stress, he said.
Eating healthy, staying hydrated and spending time with family can help. So does keeping a normal routine, such as sticking to a sleep and meal schedule, said Kristin Orlowski, a psychologist with UCHealth.
It’s possible people are hitting their “surge capacity” because there have been so many traumatic events in the past year, and that can make them feel exhausted or numb. If symptoms persist, a person should reach out to get professional therapy, she said.
For both children and adults, it is recommended that people limit how often they watch the news. It could be as simple as setting a time to watch a silly video, which won’t fix what is happening but can help regulate how a person is feeling and make them feel less out-of-control with their emotions, Anthony said.
High school student Reed hopes for “a moment of pause” and called on politicians to help the country heal.
“It’s evident a lot of Americans are upset and frustrated about everything, whether they support Trump and don’t like the election outcome or it’s about yesterday and who fanned the flames,” he said. “We need some healing right now.”
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