I only saw the man’s face—if you could call it that—for a second. It was my fault; I was dumb enough and bored enough to swipe through a slideshow from an exotic pet Instagram account captioned, “WARNING: This big game hunter just survived a bear claw to the face!” I can still call it to mind, those dangling ribbons of meat, the man improbably thumbs-upping the camera… Ugh. I wish I’d never looked.
The internet is full of graphic violence. Whether or not you go looking for it, odds are decent you’ll be exposed to some eventually—especially at a time when videos of things like brutal anti-Asian attacks or police sweeps of unhoused people’s encampments go viral on a regular basis. These things feel terrible to see—and the fear and disgust they trigger can be hard to shake without making an active effort to forget them
Adding racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia to that violence can make viewing such material even more harmful for members of those marginalized groups. For instance, this 2018 study published in the Lancet confirmed the obvious, finding that Black adults in the U.S. experienced significant, adverse mental health effects after seeing videos of unarmed Black adults being killed by the police—even without a “direct” connection to the people in that footage.
According to Sheryl Ankrom, a licensed clinical professional counselor who serves as the director of clinical services for Lifeline Behavioral Healthcare, personal trauma plays a huge role in being triggered by graphic material online: “When [marginalized people] see an image that pertains to a group that they identify with, they're going to have a much stronger reaction to that.” In fact, victims of any kind of violence could find themselves triggered by similar incidents online. “They may be reminded of the past experience to the point that they're almost reliving it over again,” Ankrom told VICE.
Ankrom said that violent content online isn’t guaranteed to provoke a negative reaction in everyone who sees it—but that it may trigger individuals and leave them with lingering feelings of distress. “When we do see violent images, and we do perceive them as disturbing, it triggers a trauma-related reaction along the lines of a ‘fight or flight’ response,” Ankrom said. She said things like one’s current stress levels or ability to compartmentalize play a big role in our reactions.
Exposure to these images can take a real toll: see allegations from Facebook content moderators that repeated exposure to graphic images on the platform including rape and suicide led them to develop symptoms of PTSD— Facebook even settled a lawsuit related to these allegations for $52,000,000 in May 2020.
So, what do you do when you see something horrible, scary, and sad that you wish you could wipe from your brain? We’ve got a few strategies in mind—and please, let us know what works best for you.
Manage the physical symptoms first
In the moment, a violent image that triggers you will cause both physical and psychological symptoms. Attending to the former can do a lot for the latter. Immediately after viewing an image that triggers a serious fear response, your breathing will become shallow and your muscles will tighten, two things that tell your brain to flood your system with adrenaline and other hormones to prepare you for survival. “It gives you a surge of energy and strength to get you ready to do what you need to do to survive whatever is happening,” Ankrom said. “But obviously, this isn't a case where we need all that.”
As such, two basic things are important to settle down: taking deep and calming breaths, and untensing those muscles. “We want to say to ourselves that we're OK, we want to try to do the deep breathing, so our brain gets the message that everything is OK. Then it starts to release the feel good chemicals that will help us to relax.” Of course, coupling this with soothing self-talk is the ideal—but if that’s too much in the moment, deep breathing is the best way to help you get back under control.
Take a step back, literally and figuratively
If at all possible, shut your computer or close the phone app the second you see a hint of violence that upsets you. Even if it’s a little too late, one of the best things you can do is to physically distance yourself from the situation. “Right after we experience something disturbing, you need to remove yourself from that trigger,” Ankrom said. “Get away from the computer, don't view that image again, and go for a walk.”
Ankrom also recommended some immediate counterprogramming in the form of music you love, your favorite TV show, or even a quick phone call with a friend who can help ground you in physical reality again—anything that helps overwrite the immediate horror and revulsion can help make it easier to deal with those feelings down the line.
You can’t stop intrusive thoughts—but you can interrupt them
After you deal with your in-the-moment reaction, an image that genuinely rattled you and ruined your day is probably going to linger in your mind for a while longer. Ankrom said it’s normal to find something disturbing pop up in your brain days or even weeks after you first saw it. “Preventing the images may not be possible, because oftentimes they are intrusive and they become automatic,” she said. “You get a trigger, a reminder of the experience, and then it causes a recurrence of the stress response.”
Still, she said there’s plenty of options people can try to redirect their trains of thought to less troubling places. One technique she suggested, with the caveat that it’s not 100 percent effective, is thought stopping. “Thought stopping is really when you catch yourself ruminating about this, and you make a conscious choice to interrupt those thoughts—yell ‘Stop!’ if you need to—and you redirect yourself,” she said. “It's hard, but the more times you're able to redirect it, the easier it should become and the more automatic that response should be.”
Ankrom also suggested physical tricks, like progressive muscle relaxation, to counter the body’s stress response of tightening up, and recommended maintaining basic self-care, like a regular eating, sleeping, and exercise schedule. She also said that if the acute stress reaction to memories of the disturbing image doesn’t taper off within a month, it’s worth seeking professional help in working through why you might be feeling stuck or trapped.
Set some blockers up for future use
Avoid violent videos by turning off autoplay on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit or browsers like Firefox, Microsoft Edge, and Safari, and heed Instagram’s “sensitive content” warnings by declining the click through. You could also, and I say this with love, use nature’s content blocker and force yourself into a full-on social media break—or at least a break from platforms where you’re most likely to run into upsetting content.
It could also be smart to ask loved ones ahead of time to refrain from reaching out in the middle of a news story in progress, even if it’s from a place of love and concern. While most people, especially those closest to you, mean well when they “just check in” as a tragedy unfolds, make them aware that their actions could inadvertently point you to the exact material you need to avoid.
Finally, check in with yourself about why you might be tempted to, occasionally, seek out these images—or whether something makes you feel compelled to do so. We spent so much of the past year glued to our screens, watching horrific things unfold via the internet, that it sometimes felt like witnessing them was the only way we could help the people actually experiencing them: watching COVID numbers spike higher and higher, live-streaming police crackdowns, watching people get beaten in the streets and on public transit by their “neighbors.” Release yourself from the obligation of looking at things that harm you. Avoiding violent imagery isn’t the same thing as plugging your ears and shutting the world out—it just means preserving your mental health in order to fight another day, when you feel steadier and stronger.
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