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Vicarious PTSD

Posted on Mon, 02 October, 2017

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is essentially the chronic firing of the fight/flight system housed primarily in the amygdala of the brain. It means we think our safety and very life is in constant threat. Living in contemporary society means there’s something triggering PTSD every week. I’m also seeing an uptick in what we call Vicarious PTSD – where you experience PTSD symptoms but haven’t had exposure to the direct cause.


I went to physical therapy today for my elbow, and while the therapist was working on my arm, we were also talking about the massacre in Las Vegas. It’s so fresh, having just happened overnight. She was visibly disturbed, admitting to being unable to concentrate and she didn’t have anyone that she knew of there for the music festival.   She does have a daughter in high school, who was already scared due to a fellow student’s arrest for terrorist threats just four days ago.

How Did We Get Here?

The pump was primed. My physical therapist was already primed to be scared because the thwarted school shooting was so close to home. The addition of the mass shooting at a music concert only reminded her that something her daughter also has access to (concerts) is no longer safe. I argue that the pump has been primed for us all for the last 20 years.


Increasingly the events of the modern age bring opportunities for PTSD, as well as desensitization. That’s when we no longer feel appropriate responses to issues that should normally elicit disgust, fear or upset. You’re used to hearing that term applied to violent video games and those studies are correct. Desensitization can also come in the form of compassion fatigue where helping professions burn out and empathy is lost. I’m not aware yet of any studies showing the same response because of the frequency and manner of terrorist activities.


Growing up, I only ever feared long distance plane travel because Yasser Arafat pioneered hijacking as a way to bring the Palestinian conflict to the world’s attention. And even then I wasn’t going to the destinations usually involved in the crashes, etc. It was more distant geographically and emotionally. Now, however, you have to be concerned walking across a bridge, through a market, along a marina or going to a concert. All common, daily activities people are normally not fearful of. Except I’m taking my son to a concert tomorrow night.


The Future

The message is clear: normal life is so different now that I what I fear most is the distortion of what my children understand is normal. They are growing up learning to fear the things that used to be taken for granted, menial even. Certainly we never feared anything fun. I now have to have drills with my kids when going to tourist monuments and the Imagine Dragons concert. While traveling over the summer, my husband and I went to the Joshua Tree concert in Paris, and as soon as we arrived we came up with a plan: stay close to the sound booth and dive in if the shit hits the fan. We noticed that the most harm was done to the people fleeing the Ariana Grande concert in the UK – we decided to stay put and take cover. How absurd that we have to come up with these plans now!! I have a plan with my kids for catastrophe at Sunday School too. Nothing is safe any longer and that’s what my physical therapist was responding to.


Vicarious PTSD means you are traumatized even though you didn’t experience the trauma first hand, something politics lately have also contributed to. I cannot watch the news. At all. I have vivid dreams and depressed mood when I watch the news before bed. I can only read the news now and find that there have been so many events of terror that I don’t respond appropriately anymore. I have become desensitized and I think it has to do with needing strong boundaries in order to treat traumas in my practice.


Clearly not everyone is going to be desensitized and allow the emotion in. It becomes disturbing to your daily life, your happiness and sense of safety. You begin to alter your lifestyle, which is the point of terrorist attacks, to undermine the western way of life. It interfered with a woman’s work today, her sense of safety and that of her child, bringing doubt and sadness. It used to be that we saw vicarious PTSD in spouses of first responders, nurses, doctors and therapists. I can see that is going to get much bigger.


Jodi Klugman-Rabb is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Marin and Napa Counties. She specializes in connecting with clients on a humorous and practical level, helpful when specializing in ADHD, trauma and Parental Identity Discovery. She uses EMDR to treat traumas and fears of all types. She is a wife of 18+ years and the mom of two funny and awesome kids. Connect with Jodi on her website or


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