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The Psychology of Witnessing Trauma

It’s been a tough week.

I went back and forth about the lens I wanted to take with this blog post concerning the Las Vegas shooting. I wrote my initial post on Tuesday, and when I went back to edit it I could see my emotions all over the page. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I first wrote, emotions are often a catalyst for action and change. However, expressing my emotions the way I did in my first draft was not going to result in what I want for this blog.

So here I go again.

We were all witness to a community trauma Sunday, October 1st. Even if you weren’t there, you saw the news, heard others talking, and probably read some impassioned social media posts the next day. What happened in Vegas broke my heart. Not only do I feel for the victims and their families, but also for our country, and even our world. My feelings affect my thoughts, and vice versa; my usually logical, scientific brain was baffled. So how do I process this? How do WE process this? And how do we move forward?

First, let’s be aware. Trauma, such as mass shootings in our country, literally affects our brains. It can change our synapses and brain waves. Some psychologists even hypothesize that if we do not grieve it right away, it can enter our unconscious and come out in harmful ways at a later time. Witnessing trauma can result in anger, mood swings, headaches, muscle tension, flashbacks (yes, even if you weren’t present at the event), fatigue, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The effects to witnessing trauma are complex, to say the least.

It is important to acknowledge this so we can move forward.

Next, do what you need to do to heal. We are grieving this most recent trauma in Vegas (which may bring up emotions connected to other mass shootings or traumas as well). We all grieve differently. We can go through the typical states of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Researchers in the field of psychology have discovered approaches that are specific to trauma and disasters like the one in Las Vegas.

One thing that helps grieving is listening to others’ stories, and telling our own. It is common to feel overwhelmed when trauma like this happens. Our brains struggle to gasp onto sanity. Listening and sharing stories helps us to reach the last stage of grief: acceptance. Our witnessing becomes part of something bigger and is able to be humanized, so we feel less overwhelmed. Psychologists have shown that watching documentaries, reading memoirs, journaling, taking part in social activism, sharing experiences, and entering conflict mediation and intervention with others all help us respond to disasters, wars, and other traumas we witness.

Finally, once you are able to filter and organize your thoughts and feelings, take action and continue the conversation. If you want to see change, whether it be with gun laws, mental health laws, safety issues, or even the conversation of trauma as a whole, you need to take action. Many people ask: How do I even begin? First, it takes courage. Talk to a friend, family member, or co-worker and brainstorm actions together; start with your home or workplace: Do you have a safety plan? If not, volunteer to research and put one in place; call and write your senators; host a neighborhood watch party; attend a peaceful protest; do what makes you feel good. The biggest caveat to all of this: be respectful. We will disagree on what the next step is. That’s OK. Respect is twofold: Offer your opinion with facts to back it up, speak humbly but firmly, and listen to others. Really listen. You don’t have to agree, but you should try to understand. Ask questions. I won’t offer a solution here because I don’t have one. I have ideas and have done research on what I think will help eliminate mass shootings, but we won’t know until real change is made. Raise awareness and be a catalyst for the change you want to see.


Alpert, J. L., & Goren, E. R. (2017). Psychoanalysis, trauma, and community: History and contemporary reappraisals. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Goodman, N. R. (2012). The 'anti-train': A metaphor for witnessing. In N. R. Goodman, M. B. Meyers, N. R. Goodman, M. B. Meyers (Eds.) , The power of witnessing: Reflections, reverberations, and traces of the Holocaust (pp. 45-56). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Harms, D., & Mair, R. (2013). Review of The power of witnessing: Reflections, reverberations, and traces of the Holocaust: Trauma, psychoanalysis, and the living mind. Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 61(3), 607-611. doi:10.1177/0003065113489025

Perlesz, A. (1999). Complex responses to trauma: Challenges in bearing witness. Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Family Therapy, 20(1), 11-19. doi:10.1111/j.0814-723X.1999.00089.x

Scarf, M. (2005). Secrets, lies, betrayals: The mind body connection: How the body holds the secrets of a life, and how to unlock them. New York, NY, US: Ballantine Books.

Weegmann, M. (2006). The Humanising of Trauma: Social Context and Witnessing. Therapeutic Communities, 27(2), 163-175.

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