Be Careful of Vicarious Trauma From Movies

vicarious trauma

Be careful of vicarious trauma from movies. I know we watch so much sexual violence and physical brutality that we can glaze over. It can feel like the violence doesn’t have an impact. It does.

I was recently watching Hotel Mumbai. It’s a dramatization of the terrorist attacks in India where ten Pakistani men killed 164 people and injured 300 over four days. The movie was unsentimental and didn’t glamorize or glorify violence. It just reported the events.

When it was over, I was literally shaking. You can’t experience horror without responding to it – even if it’s at the distance of watching it as a movie.

Violence is not “entertaining.” It’s horrifying.

Humans are designed to survive. We do that by going into fight, flight, fleeing or shutting down. If there isn’t some intervention to shut that off, it makes us numb, depressed, and hyper-alert- sometimes all at the same time. Each incident builds upon the previous one, making us less and less alive and functional.

Here is what the research says:

  • Indiana University School of Medicine examined young men who were playing violent video games for one week. There were visible alterations in MRI brain scans. This area of the brain is responsible for anger, aggression, impulsivity, and depression.
  • The Virginia Tech Research Division showed that violent movies can increase hostile behavior. The University of Alabama had a similar study with similar findings. However, Dr Nelly Alia-Klein, of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says that this depends on how violent the viewer was to begin with. ┬áThe more violent or angry the person is, the bigger the impact. Other studies show that the impact is short lived.
  • The Macquarie University Children and Families Research Centre in Australia found that children who watch violent movies are more likely to view the world as an unsympathetic, malicious and scary place.
  • There are 13 documented cases of people developing full blown PTSD after watching a horror movie.

We can choose our entertainment. A good story can be told without being graphic.

“Vicarious” mean to experience through the eyes of another. So the violence doesn’t have to happen to you to create vicarious trauma. It doesn’t even have to be live or real. Think about what you watch and what you let your children watch. Individual temperament, setting, age, and coping skills all play a part in whether or not long term harm results.

The other thing you can do for yourself is learn how to shake it off. We all need to do this daily as modern life is far more stimulating than the nervous system is capable of handling. Society has evolved faster than the brain can keep up. If you need help with this, contact me. It’s something I teach regularly.