Watching Capitol riot footage is traumatizing your system

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·8 min read
Watching violent images of the Capitol insurrection can lead to anxiety and insomnia. Here's why, say experts. (Photo: Getty Images)
Watching violent images of the Capitol insurrection can lead to anxiety and insomnia. Here's why, say experts. (Photo: Getty Images)

First came the live images of the angry mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, of people shoving barricades, overwhelming police and smashing windows. And then, in the days that followed, came more and more footage — increasingly violent — of angry, armed insurrectionists bearing symbols of white supremacy, brutalizing police officers and calling for the killing of various officials.

Now, more than a week later, the video snippets come at such a relentless clip that they seem to be on a constant loop — not only on TV and social media feeds, but in people’s minds, triggering anxiety, insomnia and all sorts of traumatic stress.

“Those images were incredibly violent, and are getting more violent as more come out, and so repeated exposure to them, even if you’re not in immediate threat but can simply empathize with others who were, causes you to maintain a state of hypervigilance — that high level of arousal you maintain by exposing yourself to it,” explains Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association.

Being in a state of emotional stress, she says, is the result of a biological response, largely beyond our control, to a perceived significant threat.

“We have a tendency to respond to an environmental threat in a fight, flight or freeze mechanism, a neurobiologically regulated process that begins in our brain … with behavior or emotional responses to avoid it,” says Wright, a clinical psychologist with expertise in trauma — which refers to experiences that involve death, possible death or serious injury, or sexual violence. Such traumatic events can include abuse, assault, serious accidents, war zone exposure, serious medical events, the sudden death of a loved one, terrorism and more.

More than 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced trauma, according to various sources, which may explain why so many viewers of these upsetting images can feel triggered.

“It could be even worse for those who have experienced trauma in the past,” Wright says.

Trauma therapist Ricky Greenwald, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Trauma Institute, explains it this way: “When something upsetting happens, we kind of have two options: One is to chew it up bite by bite and digest it. … The other is to push it out of the way, put it behind a wall, which is more tempting if something feels overwhelming,” he says. “It gets us quick relief, but the stuff behind the wall never got processed and it becomes like a wound or sore spot, and then when something else comes along, it hurts more than it should, objectively speaking.”

Between people of color in general and people who have previously been subjected to abuse or violence, Greenwald says, “that’s a lot of people in this country who could have all legitimately had ‘sore spot’ reactions,” with high potential for retraumatization.

Watching footage of pro-Trump rioters, seen here inside the U.S. Capitol, can be highly stressful, explain experts on trauma. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Watching footage of pro-Trump rioters, seen here inside the U.S. Capitol, can be highly stressful, explain experts on trauma. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Wright notes a range of possible reactions to that, such as “heart-rate increases, muscle tension, worry, catastrophizing, flashbacks … disruption in eating and appetite, disruptions in sleep — either too much or not enough — plus agitation and poor concentration.”

What we know about media consumption and mental health

While the tendency might be to believe that simply viewing footage of events from a safe distance should protect us from such traumatic stress, social psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor in the department of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, has 20 years of research to show that’s not the case. Starting with a look at those who viewed 9/11 footage on television, she’s led studies into the psychological effects of consuming disturbing footage — also including that of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando — and has found startling evidence of its power.

“We found that people who engaged with many hours of media were worse off than those people who had actually been at the marathon finish line, for example,” she tells Yahoo Life. “The effects were stronger than direct exposure. … There is something about the repetition, which doesn’t happen when you are present.”

Regarding those who watched footage of 9/11 live on TV — the only way to do so at the time — and then spent several hours engaged with such footage, she found they were “more likely to be exhibiting immediate or acute stress response — and we found that they, over time, were more likely to be exhibiting PTSD responses and, over the next two to three years, were more likely to have developed physical health problems,” she says. “So, we were able to link that to both mental and physical health.”

The researchers found the same type of resultant stress when looking at those who consumed media of both the marathon bombing and the nightclub shooting. They also discovered that, despite how upset it made viewers, many could not look away. “We found people who spent a fair amount of time engaged with media to be more distressed over time — but it also appeared to draw them … so we argue that this is a vicious cycle: The more you watch, the more you’re stressed, the more you watch,” Cohen Silver says.

A man is seen praying in front of a Boston Marathon bombing memorial on the occasion's five-year anniversary. People who watched repeated, graphic footage of the bombing exhibited mental and physical stress, research found. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A man is seen praying in front of a Boston Marathon bombing memorial on the occasion of its fifth anniversary. People who watched repeated, graphic footage of the bombing exhibited mental and physical stress, research found. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

That’s especially true now with the Capitol riot, which represents “an unfolding crisis,” she says, “which makes it really difficult to turn away because we’re trying to understand and gain some control over what happened and what will happen.”

Wright agrees, explaining that “when things are uncertain — and people have a high tolerance of uncertainty — some people … start engaging in not very helpful behaviors, and one is this sort of compulsive seeking of information. They’re hoping they’re going to learn something new to make it feel less out of control.” Plus, she says, “there’s also this sense of guilt if they’re not watching it constantly, that it means, somehow, they’re not taking it seriously.”

But “neither is true,” she says. “This constant connection to it is not going to change what happened, and is just making us over-aroused and stressed out.”

How the pandemic makes it all worse

Having such political unrest come in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Wright says, only compounds what many have been feeling for nearly a year now. “I think what we’re seeing is a culmination of collective traumas that we’re all being exposed to over and over again — the climate change [events] all summer and fall, the pandemic, the economy tanking, the social unrest, the Capitol riot — there’s no end to the list of these national events that affect us in one way or another, and which we have very little control over,” she says.

Cohen Silver agrees, noting, “In many ways, last week’s Capitol Hill assault is just another event in a series of compounding traumas that we have experienced this past year.”

So, what can we do?

“Collective trauma is a shared experience of tremendous loss, where, with individual traumas, you feel very alone,” Wright says, hoping that, in some way, “sharing this emotional experience together is ideally a way for us to come together.”

Beyond that, both she and Cohen Silver suggest bluntly: Stop watching the footage.

“What we do have control over is turning it off,” Wright says. “It’s important to know what’s going on … but we have to give ourselves permission to take a break from it.”

Adds Cohen Silver, “I have personally not seen any graphic images or videos, because I consciously decided I didn’t need to see them … and that would be my recommendation, to stay abreast of the news [by reading] without repeated exposure to graphic images. It’s impossible to not see some, but … we can monitor our degree of exposure.”

Beyond that, Wright says, it’s important to our well-being to try to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, stay active and stay socially connected to people, even at a distance. “We can also try new behaviors to add in to bolster our well-being, such as mindfulness or meditation practices, through all sorts of apps to guide you through,” she says, adding that if that feels overwhelming, just sticking to what you know may make you feel better, whether it’s listening to music or baking.

“Whatever gives you a sense of control and your body a chance to relax,” she says, advising, “Try to stay off social media. … All the research suggests it’s not bad in and of itself, but it’s how you use it. Doomscrolling? Bad. It’s just constantly exposing yourself to negative information without learning anything new.”

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