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Witnessing Trauma

It is OK to feel…

Remember where you were when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded? Or when President Kennedy was assassinated? Or when the second plane hit the Twin Towers, making it clear that what you were seeing was no accident?

Bearing witness to trauma leaves a psychological mark, and the players, coaches and teammates — and even those who were watching the game in the comfort of their home —  who saw Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse on the field Monday night, January 2, might experience post-traumatic stress disorder, even as Hamlin’s health hopefully improves.

“Being witness to a violent or traumatic event can in and of itself be a traumatic event,” said Kambria Hittelman, PsyD, MBA, executive director at Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute and Neurobehavioral Health. “As a witness, you might think that you are unscathed or that you ‘don’t have a right’ to feel the weight of the trauma, but study after study has found that witnessing a traumatic event can have lasting psychological implications.”

If you are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or any psychological issues, Hittelman advises that you seek help from a licensed mental health professional.

To cope with the aftermath of witnessing a traumatic event, Hittelman recommends:

Reach Out. Talking to friends, family members and therapists can help you sort through your feelings and remind you that you are not alone. “Maybe you and a sibling witnessed your father’s heart attack or you experienced a cardiac issue yourself. Talking with people who are close to you, who might be experiencing similar emotions to you can be very therapeutic,” Hittelman said.


Turn It Off. The nature of TV and social media is to replay or repost horrific events, which can have the unintended consequence of filling your waking hours with images of trauma. “Studies have found that media exposure to mass traumatic events has the potential to increase community PTSD prevalence,” Hittelman said. “Turning off the TV or avoiding social media for a while does not mean you don’t care about what happened. It is a self-protective move and makes it more likely that when you do tune in you’ll learn new information, not just get exposed to the same images.”

Recognize Negative Self-Talk. “After witnessing traumatic events, it is natural to feel fear. You could get caught in a loop of ‘this is going to happen to me, too,’” Hittelman said. “If these thoughts lead to behaviors like stopping exercise or other unhealthy responses, notice your actions and address your thoughts. It could be helpful to speak to a therapist to work through your feelings.”


Do Something. Sometimes witnessing traumatic events that happen to others flood our hearts with feelings of helplessness. While there is nothing you can do for Damar Hamlin, you can do small actions to show your support. “Often, we find that writing cards, letters or even social media posts sending well-wishes to people who are suffering can help us feel less helpless,” Hittelman said. “These are small gestures, but they can be meaningful to the recipient and powerful for the giver.”

Like many across the nation, Hoag is praying for Damar, his family, and his medical team. 

In the meantime, if you find yourself in need of help Hoag’s mental health program offers a wide variety of services. Learn more by visiting