The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘How do I teach my son to stay alive?’: The collective trauma after violence.

People comfort each other outside the governor's residence during a demonstration in St. Paul, Minn., on July 7, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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On Thursday morning, Randi Gloss gripped the wheel of her old, black Toyota Camry and tried to focus on the road. Someone on the radio talked about a traffic stop that ended in death. Tears stung her eyes. She hoped nobody on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway could see her cry.

“I was wondering if I could keep it together at work,” said Gloss, who is black. “Then I saw my black, male co-workers and kept putting my hands on their arms, saying, ‘I’m glad you’re alive.’”

Gloss, 25, coaches children at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast. She also prints T-shirts featuring the names of black people killed by police. This week brought two more: Alton Sterling, a Louisiana man who was pinned to the ground by officers when he was shot Tuesday, and Philando Castile, a Minnesota man who was pulled over Wednesday and shot dead while seated in his car.

Her stomach hurt. Anxiety swelled. She fought the urge to crawl back into bed.

Psychologists call it collective trauma. Something bad happens, or a series of bad things happen, and a large group — a city, a people, a society — feels it together. Americans just endured three high-profile acts of violence in three days: the deaths of Sterling and Casile, both captured to some degree on video, and the Thursday slaughter of five Dallas police officers, their lives stolen by a sniper at an otherwise peaceful protest.

Grief erupted on social media. The incredulous question: Again?

Monnica Williams, a psychology and brain-science professor at the University of Louisville, says tragic news can shake our lives. Concentration weakens. Sleep eludes us.

“Some people, depending on their experiences, can become withdrawn or emotionally cut off from people,” said Williams, a leading researcher on mental health and ethnic identity. “They feel afraid. Jumpy. Unsafe.”

Last year, after a white gunman killed nine black people in a South Carolina church, her graduate students couldn’t focus in class. Williams saw their distant stares and turned the lecture into a group conversation about the massacre.

Exposure to violence can warp our reactions, too. Williams, who also practices clinical psychology, said clients have told her about uncharacteristically aggressive reactions to moderately stressful situations in the days after watching videos of police officers killing unarmed black men.

One client sped away from a police checkpoint, resulting in a felony charge. He had been a model citizen until then. Another client slapped a Transportation Security Agent after he was searched in line. He had a spotless criminal record and later could not explain his actions.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has studied how traumatic events impact our psyches since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a rental truck loaded with explosives killed 168 people in a federal building. While we aren’t likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder from watching violence on television, she said,  exposure to murders or mass shootings helps shape the way we see the world.

“Our brains are predisposed to focus on negative things,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “For survival, you want to remember bad things and avoid them.”

The graphic footage sweeping social media this week might have elevated a frequent user’s distress levels. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2014, researchers surveyed more than 4,000 adults nationwide and found that people who consumed more than six hours of coverage on the attack daily over two-week and four-week periods reported more acute stress symptoms than those who had been near the site of the blasts.

Some cope with stress by taking action, McNaughton-Cassill said. They donate money. They call their local representatives. They vent on Facebook.

"I keep having these nightmares..." wrote Adriana McGinnis White, a social worker in Los Angeles.

She has not slept through the night since watching the footage of Sterling’s death. She is white. Her husband is black. They have an 18-month-old son.

McGinnis White, 26, dreamed that her husband was pulled over with baby Isaac in the backseat. She begged the officer not to kill them.

At work the next day, she excused herself twice to cry in the bathroom.

“I feel so unprepared,” she said, weeping. “How do I teach my son to stay alive?”

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The big question about why police pull over so many black drivers

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