Can You Get PTSD From Something That Didn’t Directly Happen to You?


Most people are aware that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in military service men and women exposed to active combat and first responders exposed to traumatic events. However, these aren’t the only people who can experience PTSD. In fact, PTSD can also occur in people who are indirectly exposed to trauma.


Indirect trauma, also called vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress (STS), can occur when an individual or working professional hears a direct account of a violent or accidental trauma retold, usually by a close relative or friend, or patient/client—or when an individual sees graphic footage of a violent or traumatic incident as part of their job.

With the proliferation of user-generated content (UGC) across social platforms and an increasing number of unspeakable abuses and traumatic events caught on video, PTSD is growing. It’s becoming especially more common among content moderators, journalists, and other workers routinely exposed to disturbing imagery. Social media platforms, in particular, are scrambling to provide mental health support and protocols to minimize the harm this specific type of exposure poses to workers.

Here’s what you need to know about PTSD from indirect trauma.

With the proliferation of user-generated content (UGC) across social platforms, PTSD is growing. It’s becoming especially common among content moderators, journalists, and other workers routinely exposed to disturbing imagery. Click To Tweet


PTSD is not a sign of personal weakness, but rather a brain-based mental health condition that develops as a response to a traumatic event, and its impact can be devastating. Experiencing a traumatic event (or in the case of indirect trauma, seeing or hearing a detailed account in an individual’s line of work) can be associated with:

  • Compromised feelings of safety in the world
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Reduced ability to regulate emotions
  • Trouble navigating interpersonal relationships
  • Feelings of shame, helplessness, and intense fear

If PTSD goes untreated, it can cause a number of serious symptoms, including suicidality.


When an individual experiences a traumatic event or is exposed to one, it triggers the body’s stress response. The threat (real or perceived) signals the fight-or-flight system to kick in and release cortisol and other stress hormones. These hormones cause the heart rate to go up and muscles to be ready to either potentially run away from whatever the threat is or freeze. Its purpose is to increase our chances of survival.

In general, after a threat passes, the stress response winds down, and the body returns to homeostasis. However, under some circumstances and in certain individuals the stress response becomes dysregulated, and symptoms of PTSD begin to emerge in the days, weeks, or months following exposure.

While the neurobiology with indirect drama is not well understood, mental health experts believe that exposure to trauma shifts an individual’s worldview. In turn, this triggers PTSD symptoms, and some evidence suggests that repeated exposure to indirect sources of trauma increases the likelihood of developing PTSD.


PTSD symptoms range from mild to severe and are not the result of medication, other illnesses, or substance abuse. Some of the most common PTSD symptoms include:

  • Avoidance of anything (people, places, or things) that serve as reminders of the trauma
  • Increased anxiety
  • Refusing to talk about what happened or their feelings about it
  • Vivid recollections of the trauma in the form of flashbacks or nightmares
  • Trouble recalling particular details about the event
  • Preoccupation with the incident, thinking about it frequently
  • Highly distressing memories
  • Feeling afraid; that the world is not safe
  • Hypervigilance; easily startled
  • Being emotionally numb
  • Feeling intense shame or to blame for what occurred
  • Sleeplessness
  • Depressed mood
  • Feeling little interest in things that used to be enjoyed
  • Feeling angry and irritable
  • Isolated socially
  • Physical dissociation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Engaging in dangerous or destructive behavior
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world

When these feelings last for a month or longer and start to disrupt daily life (relationships, work, school, etc.) and normal functioning, it is a strong indicator of PTSD.


Being glued 24/7 to distressing news feeds is a form of indirect trauma. Thankfully, most of us are protected from seeing the most disturbing forms of UGC on a regular basis because artificial intelligence (AI), journalists, and human content moderators filter it out for us. Yet, much like first responders and mental healthcare professionals who see or hear direct accounts of trauma, a growing number of content moderators and journalists are experiencing secondary traumatic stress.

There are media reports of subcontracted workers who moderate severe content at Google and YouTube and other social media platforms such as Facebook suffering from PTSD symptoms amidst stressful working conditions. One class-action lawsuit noted that content moderators are regularly exposed to traumas such as live-streamed child sexual abuse, animal abuse, beheadings, murder, and suicide—and are not adequately supported with protocols and mental health services to protect against PTSD.

A recent study examined minimizing stress for content operators by adding positive stimuli to break times such as awe-inspiring images and imagery of baby animals. However, it had the opposite effect. Yet on an educational note, the study did reveal that cumulative viewing video of abuse and trauma is the most destructive to content moderators and can lead to PTSD.

In a 2021 published report titled “The Psychological Well Being of Content Moderators,” experts noted the negative psychological impact of UGC among content moderators, and compare it to other professions that experience similar indirect trauma—including emergency dispatchers, sex-trafficking detectives, and journalists, among others.

Indeed, the connection between UGC, PTSD, and journalism caught the attention of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The center highlighted 2014 study findings showing repeated exposure of UGC by journalists to be psychologically harmful and offered the following researched tips for working with traumatic imagery to help protect journalists, which can be helpful to content moderators and others too:

  • Understand what you’re dealing with (suggests traumatic imagery is like dealing with a toxic substance that’s harm is dose dependent)
  • Eliminate needless repeat exposure (e.g., take notes rather than repeat viewing)
  • Experiment with different ways of building some distance into how you view images (e.g., focus on clothing rather than faces)
  • Try adjusting the viewing environment (e.g., reduce the size of the window, adjust the screen’s brightness, turn the sound off when possible)
  • Take frequent screen breaks (e.g., look at something pleasing, walk around, stretch, or seek out contact with nature)
  • Craft your own self-care plan (e.g., exercise regularly, maintain outside interests, invest time in social connections)

Hence, workers who are tasked to screen disturbing UGC need to take measures to protect themselves to prevent PTSD from developing. Additionally, as research continues, companies employing content moderators need to provide adequate mental health support to their workers.


If you recognize PTSD in yourself or someone you know who has been exposed to indirect trauma, consult a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible. Both cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can be helpful in treating PTSD.

PTSD and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Excellent information

    Comment by Patti — July 5, 2023 @ 4:06 AM

  2. With the proliferation of very intense crime/murder documentaries on TV, people are learning a lot of horrible information about murder, mass murderers and serial killers that they otherwise would not know, e.g. "Lt. Joe Kenda, Homicide Hunter". That show filled my head with horror and taught me how dangerous the world can be and what can happen to you and the things that can happen that you never knew about. The other thing is knowing about and learning about the Holocaust and watching the Holocaust documentaries, particularly if you are Jewish, as I am. The stories, the horror never ends. It changed me very much when I first viewed the films of the Holocaust as a young girl. I'm not sure I've made my point or explained my position that coherently, but I've learned too much about crime and murder that I never knew before.

    Comment by El Kol — July 5, 2023 @ 5:28 AM

  3. What about the pervasive violence of tv, particularly when entire series containing violent content with each episode? Does the brain know the difference? Plus the volume, language, etc. I speak of this not from a moral standpoint, but rather from how genuinely shocking such content has become.

    Comment by Angela — July 5, 2023 @ 5:34 AM

  4. wonderful information!

    Comment by Douglas Morris — July 26, 2023 @ 9:31 AM

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