Racial Trauma in Film: How Viewers Can Address Re-traumatization

By Tiarra McKinney

Re-traumatization by film can have profound effects on one’s mental health and well-being. Some may ask, “Well it’s just a movie; can it really have that deep of an impact on someone’s mental health?” The answer to that question is, yes, it can.

When you are watching a movie or a show, your brain thinks the action on screen is happening to you. This is why you have to consciously tell your brain, “It is just a movie.” Our mirror neurons are part of the reason we cry during a sad part of a movie, laugh at jokes, and jump at a scary scene (Zacks, 2015). Our emotions are deeply impacted by watching film and media content. This raises the question: “What happens if we watch content that we have already experienced ourselves and was traumatizing in our real, present day life?”

How Can Films or Shows Re-traumatize Viewers?

Re-traumatization occurs when an event or the witnessing of an event elicits symptoms of a past trauma (Zgoda, Shelly, Hitzel, & 2016). Often, this process occurs when a memory is triggered and is brought back into the conscious mind. In this process, flashbacks may occur. According to trauma researchers, experiencing flashbacks of the past trauma can inhibit thought processes. This occurs when the person temporarily loses the ability to recognize that their present reality is safe and not threatening (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006). The visceral physiological and psychological reaction that can come from watching material is a symptom of re-traumatization.

Researchers have shown that re-traumatization by film and entertainment media can occur when watching depictions of violence, abuse, or neglect, especially if these traumas have been experienced.

Racial trauma can also be triggered. Racial trauma includes, but is not limited to, instances of microaggressions, covert and overt racism, discrimination, and prejudice (Chavez-Dueñas, Adames, Perez-Chavez, & Salas, 2019). Often, individuals are not aware they are being re-traumatized in the moment of watching a film. These effects may not show up until after the viewing in most cases. The activity that exists within the brain as it relates to trauma is proven to be exponential in understanding how trauma effects one’s being holistically.

For example, Netflix’s films and limited series, When They See Us and American Son, explore racially charged themes such as stereotyping, generalizations, microaggressions, and covert racism. While these films have pertinent messages that need to be heard and stories that need to be told, people of color can permit themselves to avoid re-traumatization as audience members. Witnessing these transgressions can remind someone of their own racial trauma and impact their emotional well-being.  Racial trauma has the power to overwhelm the nervous system, similar to other types of trauma (Hart, 2014). When this occurs, it can elicit a visceral physiological and psychological reaction, which is also a symptom of vicarious trauma.

5 Things You Can Do if You Experience
Re-traumatization from Media and Film

Talk to someone about your feelings. People often think they are the only ones experiencing difficult feelings, but this is not true.

Take deep breaths.

Talk to a mental health counselor about your feelings related to what you viewed. A trained and competent mental health professional will validate your feelings and listen to you.

Participate in self-care that works for you to help regulate your emotions.

Write your feelings and thoughts in a journal to organize your thoughts and better understand your emotional state.

The Importance of Addressing Racial Trauma and Re-traumatization from Film

Racial trauma is often overlooked as a legitimate trauma. The gap in understanding about the connection between racial trauma and re-traumatization by film indicates that more research is needed to better understand these concepts and their implications. Certain groups have immense fears of being discriminated against, fears of being wrongfully convicted, and even fears of being annihilated because of their ethnic and racial background. By understanding their cultural experiences in their day-to-day lives, we can begin to understand how film and media can have profound affects regarding the trials related to their cultural identity.

If we continue to dismiss racial trauma and the aspects that can lead to re-traumatization, harm will continue to be a part of that cycle. Shedding light on the topic and advocating for change can help those who have experienced racial trauma seek help and begin to facilitate their healing process.

Prevention and the provision of resources such as psychoeducation can serve as a catalyst to extinguish the stigmatization of mental health conditions in minority communities and increase their overall well-being. It is imperative we first recognize the inner-workings of racial trauma to better address its long-lasting and prevalent effects as it shows up in media and film. This can help normalize mental health treatment. Once we begin to shed light on topics such as this one, we can begin to make visible the historically socially invisible populations and advocate for the visibility of occurrences that are often seen as minute.

5 Things Counselors Can Do to Address the Impact of Trauma from Media and Film

Advocate for media and TV to have trigger warnings.

Educate people about re-traumatization.

Include film/media questions in their intake forms and ask if anything a client watched triggered any emotional or psychological reactions that stood out to them.

Utilize culturally responsive treatment with minority clients of marginalized communities.

Hold a non-dismissive attitude toward the impact of film and media content.


Chavez-Dueñas, N. Y., Adames, H. Y., Perez-Chavez, J. G., & Salas, S. P. (2019). Healing ethno-racial trauma in Latinx immigrant communities: Cultivating hope, resistance, and action. American Psychologist74(1), 49–62.

Duvernay A., (Creator. Producer) (2019). When They See Us. Tribeca Productions. U.S. Netflix.

Demos-Brown, C., (Creator) Leon, K. (Producer) (2019). American Son. Simpson Street. U.S. Netflix.

Hart, A. (2019). The discriminatory gesture: A psychoanalytic consideration of posttraumatic reactions to incidents of racial discrimination. Psychoanalytic Social Work, 26(1), 5–24.

Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton.

Zacks, J. M. (2015). Flicker: your brain on movies. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Zgoda, K., Shelley, P., & Hitzel, S. (2016). Preventing Retraumatization: A Macro Social Work Approach to Trauma-Informed Practices & Policies.