When You Wish You Hadn't Seen It

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When You Can’t Avert Your Eyes — Processing What You’ve Seen 

Most of us have seen something that left us greatly distressed or traumatized. Whether such viewing occurred personally or professionally, how do we shake the imagery? Many professionals, like myself, work with graphic evidence every day. Thankfully, there are tips and tactics to lessen the psychological impact, and coping strategies to recharge.

Viewing Graphic Evidence

George W. Burruss et al. (2018) examined the issue of vicarious trauma due to viewing graphic evidence within the context of investigating Internet crimes against children.

They found that investigators regularly encounter psychologically harmful materials in the course of working cases involving child pornography and sexual exploitation, and that such exposure directly and indirectly enhances the likelihood of experiencing trauma.

They emphasize the necessity of management to monitor investigators for indications of emotional stress or secondary trauma, and also highlight the value of wellness programs as well as psychological counseling for digital investigators to minimize the chances of suffering secondary trauma symptoms, and to encourage healthy coping mechanisms.

They note that some agencies encourage, while others mandate counseling services after a certain number of hours viewing graphic content.

Other researchers have acknowledged the value of positive coping strategies.

Thomas J. Holt and Kristie Blevins (2011) (ibid.)  examined job stress and satisfaction among a selection of digital forensic examiners, and found that although analysts did in fact experience a moderate amount of work stress, they also experienced high levels of job satisfaction, and used methods of prosocial coping to balance the stressors.

Because of the value placed on achieving psychological balance, if you have to view disturbing, explicit, or graphic imagery, here are a few tips for managing associated trauma.

Practical Tips for Viewing What You Would Rather Not See

People who already know, either due to occupation or occasion — such as having to view photos of an accident or autopsy, that they are going to have to endure psychologically upsetting or unsettling imagery, can prepare themselves beforehand, and afterwards.

—With photographs, start with an aerial perspective by using gallery view to get an idea of the type of content you are about to view. With videos, watch without sound, at least at first. Utilize different background sounds in your viewing room, such as classical music, radio, television, or white noise, as opposed to silence.

—Regarding location, select a strategic, private viewing area in a private space — not in your home. Sit by a window with a pleasant view, providing both natural light and a link to the outside world. Ideally, view such material with others involved in the same incident as you (medical professionals, law enforcement), who are readily available for assistance or conversation.

—Only view graphic evidence for a certain amount of time, and early enough in the day where you have plenty of time afterwards for other activities to provide distraction and diversion, replacing disturbing sounds and images with positive sensory experiences.

Never view graphic evidence by yourself at night.

—If you experience signs of trauma or discomfort, share your feelings with specially trained peer support employees or counselors. With your family, you can share your emotion without sharing the graphic details to avoid causing distress.

Employing proactive protective strategies can’t erase your memory of disturbing imagery, but it can lessen the psychological trauma and likelihood of such viewing negatively impacting other aspects of your life.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of “Live with Dr. Wendy” on KCBQ and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick’s Reports — More Here.​