The risks a witness of violence faces - Labirint

The risks a witness of violence faces

When violence occurs, it is not only the survivor who suffers, but also those who observe the situation with no possibility to help. Even if you are a mere stranger, it can cause you emotional trauma. According to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (CETS no. 210), help and protection are needed not only for those who have been subjected to violence, but also for the observers, i. a. children and other relatives in cases of domestic violence. Below we address the risks a witness of violence faces and explain how to help yourself if you have witnessed an abuse incident.

Сaleb Woods / Unsplash

Why is it difficult to watch violence

Every person has mirror neurons, which help us to learn from the experience of others. Thanks to the mirror neurons, children learn how to speak and behave themselves by looking at their parents and imitating people around them. 

Among other things, mirror neurons are responsible for empathy. By seeing what happens to other people, we can relate to them and share their joy, pain, or despair. 

There are people whose mirror neurons work in a different way due to some physiological conditions. Thus, they do not feel empathy for others or feel it to a very limited extent. It is hard for them to relate to others or feel compassion for them. On the other hand, those who have developed empathy can be emotionally moved by the sufferings of others.

If you witness an episode of violence and cannot interfere to help, it can cause you real pain. Due to the mirror neurons, you can feel that the same can happen to you and that you would not be able to prevent it.

If an episode of violence was not prevented, the witnesses can experience the same feeling of defeat and injustice as the person affected. You can also obtain this feeling by watching TV news or videos online. It can seriously hurt us if we are not prepared or protected enough psychologically.

Defense mechanisms

Witnesses of violence get through their experience in different ways. It depends on their background, level of sensibility and the psychological defense mechanisms they use. There are a few common mechanisms, which help witnesses of violence to deal with their experience.


People can isolate themselves from what they see, convincing themselves that it is not real. A typical example is when people see news about brutal violence, they often say that it is a fake or an exaggeration.

Identification with the aggressor

Sometimes, people can be astonished by the episode to such a degree that they unconsciously prefer to side with the abuser: in such a case, they start to justify or even try to please him hoping that they’ll stay unharmed.

Fixing the world

For some people, the main defense mechanism is to get involved in a socially useful activity: to reduce violence in the world and to help those they can reach. Being engaged in charity or volunteering work, people are not going to save those who once suffered before their eyes, but they may get better by trying to prevent similar situations in the future.

There are many other defense strategies: some immerse themselves into work, some prefer to distance themselves from what they’ve seen.

Some mechanisms can prove themselves useful; others deserve to be judged. Nevertheless, all of them are strategies people use to protect their own mind from the severe consequences of what they saw.

How to help yourself?

Some people have not developed their defense strategies yet, while others witness such a brutal episode of violence that their defense mechanisms fail to help them get over it. Consequently, they can obtain a serious psychological trauma. If they cannot get over such an episode for months, the risk of post-traumatic syndrome occurs.

If you have witnessed violence and the memories still haunt you, it is best to take these steps:

Contact a specialist. It is the best thing you can do to help yourself. It can be difficult to find a suitable psychologist or psychiatrist and it can cost your money. But there are specialists who work pro bono and consult people online. Besides, if you do not have a possibility to visit a psychologist, you can see a neurologist in a local clinic: he will help you deal with physiological symptoms.

Pay attention to the symptoms. If you address physiological symptoms of stress, you may feel better. For instance, if you have completely lost your appetite, make your own meal schedule and try to eat at least small portions of food. Use YouTube to find meditation videos or content about the EMDR method (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). These are proven effective practices that help improve well-being in a stressful situation. 

The main thing is to take your well-being seriously and not to underestimate the importance of the problem. If you were not hurt physically, it does not mean that your problem does not exist or that you do not need help.

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