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What Other Disasters Taught Me About Secondary Trauma After the Capitol Insurrection

Editor's Note

This article contains details of the events on January 6, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., along with 9/11 and other disasters, and may be triggering.

Natural disasters, terrorist attacks and national incidences all leave us glued to the television reliving in real-time these horrors. We cannot look away, but we are programmed to watch. We end up experiencing secondary trauma, which is defined as indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account or narrative of a traumatic event.

Stress impacts all our lives in various ways. The impact can be wide-ranging from modest impact to debilitating. The prevalent symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, as noted by traumaawareschools.org, are:

  • Feeling numb, dissociated or detached, hopeless, overwhelmed or other emotional symptoms.
  • Physical symptoms such as fatigue and low energy.
  • Behavioral changes like a change of routine and negative self-destructive coping.
  • Altered job performance and feeling low job morale in professional settings.
  • Cognitive changes such as flashbacks, altered concentration, difficulty decision making and confusion.
  • Questioning a higher power or wondering if one is being punished for miss deeds.
  • Visibly withdrawing or becoming emotionally unavailable in important relationships in one’s life.

In my 48 years, I have experienced numerous national incidences that have caused me secondary trauma. This past week was no exception. I am struck by how these events accumulate without any support to mitigate them. We collectively grieve and live in pain but there is no national outcry for mental health interventions. All of this brings up in me my past traumas and how powerless I was to stop the onslaught of pain.

These events that took place on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on January 6 were just a culmination of many secondary traumas for me. Here are some of the events that have negatively impacted me:

1. When, in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

I was sitting with my eighth-grade science class in the library, watching the launch as all those people died. We all sat quietly; not a student nor a teacher said a word. We just held our breaths and imagined this was not happening. Maybe we were not seeing it correctly and everything was actually fine. We had studied all about how this launch carried a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who flew as part of the Teacher in Space Project. We were so excited. We had been to U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama and knew all about the shuttle program and that part of the space shuttle was built in our hometown. When I got home from school and for weeks later, we watched it on television on a loop. I could not escape it.

I will never forget the Challenger explosion. It was the first event in my life that I will remember where I was on that day. It really shook me to the core. As a child, you do not expect to live through something like that. Adults are supposed to protect you. It was just out in the open for all of us to see and it cannot be unseen.

2. When the terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened.

I was at home, talking on the phone with the gas company. The operator said, “something is happening, turn on your television.” I saw the second plane hit the tower, live with the rest of America. I watched the towers fall and all I could think was how many people just died. I was horrified but could not look away. I called my family I instructed everyone to come home. I did not feel safe. I was scared for them and me.

I got called into my job. They wanted us to come in to troubleshoot the fact that we had to cancel the conference that was starting the next day. I declined. I worked in a State government building on the 13th floor. No, thank you.

I watched the horrors on TV unfold for several days, as the news played the planes crashing into the towers on a loop. I was caught like a deer in headlights but could not look away. I was frozen with fear but had no outlet for it. It was not happening to me, but then it was.

3. When, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina happened.

I was home on maternity leave. I watched what seemed like every Black person I personally knew either sitting on their roof begging to rescued or dead in all that water. My parents lived in New Orleans and had gratefully evacuated before the storm. We had not really spoken in years, but I was living in a home with three empty bedrooms and their home was now underwater. Against my better judgment, I invited them to my home. We together watched for days as my government did nothing to save my people. All the people at the Louisiana Superdome had no relief from the elements, no food, no medicine, no water. I felt that I was there — that I was living through that nightmare.

I could not, would not turn away. Here I was, living with two survivors who were traumatized and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and I was trying to help them cope, but I was also living through something I did not understand. I too was drowning and could not come up for air.

4. In 2020, when Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed.

I was social distancing because of the coronavirus (COVID-19). I never did watch the videos of the three events. I could not possibly survive seeing them in fact It was enough to hear about the horrors to traumatize me. My people are under attack and I feel powerless to do anything about it. I could not even protest because of my fear of the coronavirus. I could not stand in solidarity with my people and rise up against the powers that be that are killing us.

The trauma brought on depression and anxiety and I had to seek specialized treatment for racial trauma just to cope. Months later I am still reminded about what happened early last year and how powerless I feel in the face of overt racially motivated violence.

5. This past week, when the insurrection happened at the Capitol.

I was watching the consequential electoral college certification when the Vice President was whisked away. Everyone was confused, me and the newscasters. Soon thereafter, we got the news that Trump’s supporters had breached the Capitol. I was uncertain what that meant. It took days and five deaths to see the true nature of what happened, and even as I write this a week and a half later, we are still discovering video that is more and more horrifying. I cried throughout the entire siege. I watched with horror and confusion. Where was the force shown to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters? Why did the Trump supporters seem to just walk in and take over? I was without words.

I watched television news for days on end, looking for any new tidbits to help me process. I listened to the pundits and I heard the stories of the survivors. They could have easily been killed. They were yelling “where is Nancy Pelosi,” “hang Mike Pence.” They were out for blood. They had a map of the Capitol and were using it. The people in Congress are still in fear for their lives some from their own colleagues not to mention the rioters and their friends. The trauma is ongoing.

I sit in horror, forever scarred by what I saw that day and the days that followed. I cannot unsee what I saw that day. Now, as I write this, I am faced with wanting to watch the Inauguration of the new President and Vice President but also scared something traumatic is going to happen that day. The anticipation is traumatizing all on its own.

Past Trauma

When I witness a traumatic event or hear of one, I fall back into the time I was a child, when I was powerless to stop bad things from happening. I froze during those times and succumbed to whatever was happening. I am an adult now and have control over how I respond to my environment and control what I accept in it. So can you.

How to Avoid Getting Secondary Trauma?

It is hard to avoid the world around you and the news that is made hourly. So, to avoid secondary trauma we must limit our consumption of news and process more freely what we are taking in. This is hard to do when the news is everywhere, not just on television but in our newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter. 

How Do We Cope With Secondary Trauma and the Aftermath?

  • First, we need to recognize we have been traumatized.
  • We must turn away from, or at least limit exposure.
  • We can talk with someone to help process what we are going through.
  • Reframe what happened and realize this did not happen to you.
  • Practice traditional self-care techniques.
  • If you can, volunteer to help the cause.
  • Identify what you do best and relish in that.
  • Know how you have made a difference in others’ lives and be proud of this work.
  • Write! Write! Write! Even if it is just in your journal.
  • Take care of your “Mighty” selves. It is rough out here.

Photo by Ezekiel Nuhu on Unsplash

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