When Jamie Hutton saw Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapse on the field during a Monday night NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, her mind rocketed back to watching her own father go into cardiac arrest a year earlier. When announcers reported Hamlin was receiving CPR, she flashed back to watching her best friend’s mom getting it too, just a few months ago. Adam Sorokes, who was watching the game with his five-year-old and five-day-old sons, struggled to manage his own shock and reassure his increasingly concerned kid. “I’m going to have nightmares about Bills #3,” his son said as Adam put him to bed, hours after his normal bedtime. And for Tim Ruof, the scene on the field recalled the PTSD he’s been working through for a decade after watching his own friend receive CPR.
When we turn on our televisions, file into the stands or tune into the radio for a sports game, we’re ready for fun and excitement. In American football in particular, fans know injuries are often an unfortunate side effect of the highly physical game. “If we are honest, the reality is that American football does have a problematic history when it comes to how it treats players’ health,” notes psychiatrist and author of Real Self-Care Pooja Lakshmin, MD. “You sit down to watch a game and are expecting a casual viewing experience, not a medical crisis. What is disorienting here is that the off-field trauma came into view on screen.”
And it’s not just sports: War footage, violence on the news or on social media can all feel like a punch to the gut. Nothing inoculates any of us against watching human suffering, but there are ways to make it hurt less, and help kids deal with what they’re seeing, too.
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It’s OK to be upset (and OK if you’re not).
“Seeing people get hurt on screen while it’s live is heartbreaking because it reminds us of mortality as human beings,” explains Thriveworks mental health counselor Mykal Manswell, LCMHA, who played college football for the West Virginia Mountaineers. “People can anticipate physical injuries in a physical sport, but when it is to the point of near-death experiences, it is a much heightened level of concern.”
When lifelong fan Hunter Radesi saw the injury onscreen at Fulton Ale House, the Brooklyn bar where he watches most games, he and the rest of the bar patrons didn’t realize what had happened at first. But once they did, the mood turned somber. “I’ve never heard it quieter in that room,” he said. “It all felt very blurred and grey. A lot of hugs and even some tears in the bar. When I left, everyone there that I knew either shook my hand or gave me a hug, which has never happened before.”
Shaun Nanavati, PhD, neuropsychologist and chief science officer of the anxiety management app AQ, was also shocked when he watched the injury, but he wasn’t surprised when people around him began to recount previous sports injuries they’d also witnessed. “I think we often watch television or identify with the intensity and thrill of sports because it provides a safe bubble in which we can act out our emotions without the danger of something like a true war,” he explains. “A tragedy like that on live television Monday night punctures that illusion. The realization that life is always potentially dangerous and that we may not have control is a terrifying one.”
Talking about it with loved ones can help.
When processing events like having watched a live injury or death, some people, like Nanavati and Hunter, find it cathartic to talk it through with friends, while others need to take some time alone with their thoughts. Neither approach is wrong. Jamie logged off social media and went outside to get some air and process what she had just seen on the screen and in her own life. Adam followed the news on his phone as he struggled with how to reassure his son in the face of tragedy, but turned off the live TV stream. When Hunter got to work the next morning, he and fellow football fans among his colleagues made a point to check in with one another. Whatever your approach, be gentle with yourself and with how others need to deal with it, too.
Nanavati notes that some people find it helpful to desensitize themselves by watching the event unfold several times, so it doesn’t feel as shocking. “I would say the most important thing in processing these events is to check in with yourself,” he advises. “Trust what works for you and learn how to navigate these waters because my guess is that this will not be the last traumatic event we witness.”
Even small actions can feel good.
There’s a reason “thoughts and prayers” often flood social media in the immediate aftermath of events in which we feel powerless. Having something to do, even if it’s just typing a few sympathetic words into your phone, can help people feel less out of control or redirect those hopeless feelings. “If a person is live at an event, many people can provide comfort to one another through hugs, prayers, acts of service or words of affirmation,” adds Manswell.
When news of Hamlin’s injuries went out, social media flooded with emotion, ranging from shock and fear, frustration at NFL officials and a pervasive sense of hopelessness in the face of uncertainty. Many fans donated to a toy drive Hamlin had set up, as a way to express their support. As of the day after the game, The Athletic reports that the player’s charity had received over $4.3 million from well-wishers. Both are responses we’re familiar with in the wake of tragedies like natural disasters, mass shootings, war and other events where it feels like there’s nothing else to do.
When Hunter and his fellow game-watchers saw the link, they made an announcement to the bar so everyone who felt bereft could do something, anything, to help. Others shared videos of the player hugging his family on social media, or reminisced about happier times.
Those personal responses are in line with the way sports figures, in particular, can often feel as close as our own family, explains stress researcher and author of The Stress Prescription Elissa Epel, PhD., whose book offers advice on how to deal with stressful situations like this one.
“My son, a football fan, was very deeply impacted by seeing Damar’s injury and has been virtually with him since the game, checking the news for updates,” she explains. “Football fans tend to know the players, their passions, their philanthropic work. They are real people, with personal lives, not just a sports figure.”
Let kids know their feelings are valid.
For younger viewers, watching someone get hurt on TV can be especially scary. Adam reassured his son that the player was in good hands, and that nothing bad would happen to him so his son would feel safe. Some kids may naturally open up about how they’re feeling, but others may need a little help to identify and express those big emotions, says Manswell.
“Parents can help by asking them questions about their emotional state, providing reassurance for the safety of the injured persons, giving them space to identify their thoughts and emotions and giving them an opportunity to provide support,” he explains. If you’re donating to a campaign or writing a social media post or letter of support, showing your children that message or action (and letting them help out, when appropriate) can help them feel more in control, too. Kids may also benefit from writing or drawing out their feelings or spending quality time doing something else entirely that gets their mind off the event. And don’t be afraid to show your kids your own vulnerability because kids learn how to express their feelings from the adults around them.
“You can be honest in the moment and say ‘Yes, buddy, that was scary for me too, but we are both here together now,'” Lakshmin advises. “Ask your kids how they feel about what they saw, and be appropriately honest in your responses, tailored to their development.” She adds that there’s really no “perfect” way to respond to events like this. Your best attempt is good enough.
Finally, if your child has nightmares after watching something traumatic, that doesn’t mean you handled it incorrectly. “That’s to be expected,” Lakshmin adds. “And means that your child feels safe enough to voice their fear to you.”
Lean on your personal coping tools.
Just like players train for the physical, mental and emotional challenges of the game, it’s important for all of us to know what works for us when the worst happens, Manswell says. “People who put themselves in physically challenging situations must proactively take care of their mind, body and spirit through proper nutrition, weightlifting and mindset training and people who support them can provide support through words of encouragement, gifts or emotional support,” he says. “Similarly, viewers can utilize self-care by going to therapy, spending quality time with loved ones, engaging in well-being activities that reduce stress and even providing assistance to others in need.”
Some people find mindfulness or meditation helpful, while others get more out of exercise, watching or reading something light or funny, or engaging in a favorite hobby. If you find yourself having a hard time feeling better after witness a traumatic event, whether it’s onscreen or in person, talking to a licensed professional can help process those emotions.
“In general, there is strong research showing that witnessing traumatic events on TV, leads to anxiety and PTSD symptoms in some people that can persist for months or years,” Epel adds. “Talking to people is usually the most important and comforting thing to do in the aftermath. It can be helpful to share the range of feelings about the witnessed events, especially with those who have also witnessed it as well.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) can help, and it is free and confidential. For more info on PTSD, visit the PTSD Alliance.
Lizz (she/her) is a senior editor at Good Housekeeping, where she runs the GH Book Club, edits essays and long-form features and writes about pets, books and lifestyle topics. A journalist for almost two decades, she is the author of Biography of a Body and Buffalo Steel. She also teaches journalism as an adjunct professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and creative nonfiction at the Muse Writing Center, and coaches with the New York Writing Room.
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