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We suffer for stressful events that occur in our own lives and probably in the lives of those whom we love. However, can we also suffer intensely for painful events that occur in the lives of unknown people living miles away from us? The answer, though unexpected, is a definite yes.

What did we undergo when we watched the giant tsunami in Japan wash away cars and buildings like toys? Or the nuclear reactors burst in Fukushima? Or the 26/11 terrorist attacks in CST, Mumbai? Footage and reports of mass destruction send a shiver down our spines for sure, but they can cause us more trouble than that.

What are Traumatic Events?

Traumatic events are events that are life-threatening or make us feel like we have no control over them.

Examples include:

  1. Natural Calamities – The 26/7 floods in Mumbai
  2. The 26/1 earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat
  3. The recent 11/3 Tsunami, Earthquake and Nuclear crisis in Japan
  4. Violence – Wars, terrorist attacks
  5. Accidents, fires
  6. Sexual abuse

PTSD: a condition triggered by Trauma

After experiencing such an event, we may develop symptoms indicating fear and anxiety. For example, we may experience nightmares, keep thinking about or even relive the event, lose interest in activities we like and manifest generalized anxiety. These symptoms, if they last for a significant time period, are termed as “Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.

Vicarious Trauma and PTSD

A question that has ramifications for all of us is:

Do I need to undergo a traumatic event myself to develop symptoms of PTSD?

The Answer is NO.

Vicarious trauma refers to a situation in which one is indirectly exposed to trauma by watching it, listening to a survivor’s account, reading about it etc. Such exposure is also capable of inducing a fear reaction in us. We are flooded with such information very frequently. Come to think of it, the previous generations had only the newspaper to brief themselves of such events. Today, we have ready accessibility to several news channels on television and the internet offering us live footage of such events and extensive coverage of the ensuing devastation. Vivid images of devastating events are flashed repeatedly for days together in the media. While this helps to keep us updated, it also exposes us to what could be ‘vicarious trauma’.

‘Why must such a dreadful thing occur?’ 

A lot of us ask the ‘WHY’ question when we hear of such events. WHY should this happen to innocent beings? If they didn’t do anything do to deserve it, even I haven’tThis means it could even happen to me. This painfully frightening thought could put us on the edge for long. We can manage to go about life as usual and try to “junk” such thoughts or “not think about it”, but deep down there are bursts of anxiety we struggle to overcome…

Anecdotal evidence, as well as that garnered by research, points out that PTSD can be developed even through indirect or ‘vicarious’ exposure to trauma. While it pains us to watch/ read such news, let us stop to think about the kind of impact it could have on our children, whose minds are so much more impressionable and innocent than an adult mind. It is very important be attentive to children who are exposed to such news. It could be useful to remind ourselves and them that such events are the exception rather than the rule. For eg., while news of a plane crash or hijack can be painful, most people who travel by planes reach home safely.

The link below provides some useful guidelines regarding how to deal with children when they watch such news on television and the internet. Be sure to read through the portions titled ‘Recommendations for viewing’ and ‘Children’.


  1. Ahmed: ‘Shooting yourself in the Leg’ sounds perfectly apt :). There are probably a number of functions the re-enacting serves. At least one that comes to my mind right away is: It helps us to fit our life into a story, giving it validation… This is an interesting topic, perhaps warrants an all new post by itself!

  2. HAving experienced trauma we also compulsively re-enact the traumatic scene repeatedly in subsequent events/triggers that may not be so intense. Gestalt therapy calls it abreaction but it is also simply called “shooting yourself in the leg”. You are like a gun loaded with fear and with hair trigger assuming either a hostile environment or looking for giants to kill and feel validated. I say all this from my own experience.

  3. Punita: Glad you liked it :)With all of us being exposed repetitively to stories of horror in the newspaper and vivid images in the media, we thought this would be an important topic to touch upon.

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