I am a 17-year-old girl who has had no psychological issues in the past. A few months ago, someone I know thought it would be a good idea to show me a very violent video clip. I can't go into details but basically it involved a real video of someone being killed. Seriously I don't know why a person would show that to someone. I understandably freaked out initially and was very traumatized. I pretty much got over it, but it still keeps popping into my head. I will be sitting in class or at the Shabbos table and it will start replaying and I can't get my mind off it. I try ignoring it, but it keeps coming back. These are not the kinds of things I need in my brain! I had a great time in camp over the summer and I thought I was done with it but now that I am back home, I am back where I started, and a friend suggested I write to The Couch. If you could please give me some suggestions as to how to get rid of this, it would be really helpful!
I don’t know what “psychological issues” are. This term can mean very different thing to different people. Everyone has had moments—or periods—of anxiety, sadness, anger, and other unwanted emotions. Of course, this is normal…and is the reason that you do not consider them to be indicative of psychological issues. You seem to consider your reaction to the video clip, however, as an “issue.”
Certainly, the thoughts and feelings that you have are troubling. The images in the video keep surfacing, perhaps causing you to relive the experience to some degree. The problem relates to the emotions that were triggered by your thoughts about this video. These emotions were introduced upon viewing the clip, but are now also part of the cause for your repeated re-experiencing of the video. This becomes a cycle, whereby these feelings cause you to flash back to the images—and the images further reinforce these feelings.
Every person reacts differently to similar experiences. This is due to the zillions of past experiences, connections, and emotions that we have experienced throughout our lives. I don’t know the primary emotion that was wrought by the video clip. Nor do I know whether this is the primary emotion currently being triggered.
Often in similar instances, a person’s sense of safety is shaken. The common teenage “invincibility fable” is challenged. Even when an adolescent’s sense of invincibility is not strictly conscious, it often exists on some level. As teenagers, we might cross the street without looking, or engage in other risky behaviors without acknowledging the reality of our vulnerability. For some of us, this sense of invincibility slowly ebbs as we accept increased responsibility in our lives. For others, this can occur rapidly, caused by a seminal moment in their lives (such as the birth of a child). I wonder whether your general sense of safety was seriously impacted by your experience.
Sometimes, the belief that an emotion is abnormal can cause a person to dwell on it more than they otherwise would. I think that it is important to recognize that your response is normal. Perhaps not ideal, but normal. At age 17, I assume that you had not previously been unduly exposed to the concept of death. There may have been nothing in your life that caused you to seriously consider (consciously or otherwise) your own mortality or that of others. Then suddenly, in one fell swoop, your sense of security was fractured.
Although this experience occurred a few months ago, you had something of a hiatus from emotionally dealing with the feelings that it caused. Summer camp, in many ways, is a break from real life. You may have unconsciously placed this issue on hold during the summer months, but that only meant that it was delayed until you resumed your “real life.”
Since after the summer, would you say that the frequency of re-living the experience has waned? What about the clarity and detail? Perhaps most importantly, are the emotions becoming less intense over time? If so, you are likely having a normal reaction, and the problem will probably continue to decrease in frequency and severity.
If you continue to experience similar—or higher—levels of negative emotions (usually coupled with continued or increased frequency of flashbacks), you may be having a more significant post-traumatic stress reaction. This may improve on its own as you continue to process the experience and your emotions. However, if things don’t improve over time, it may be a good idea to see someone professionally, even if only for a few sessions.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200