How to cope if you see disturbing videos and other sensitive content

Whether it’s popped up on your social feeds, is plastered across the news, or is in that TV show everyone’s bingeing, seeing disturbing images and videos can sometimes be really hard to deal with.

When this happens, it’s completely normal to feel a range of emotions – not just in the moment, but long after, too. If you’re finding things difficult to process, we have some tips you can try to help you manage your feelings. 

Common reactions to disturbing videos and sensitive content

Whether it’s a bad world news story that’s getting heaps of media coverage, a clip showing someone being discriminated against, or scenes of conflict in your family’s country of origin, we all react differently when we see content that disturbs us in some way. Remember: there’s no ‘right’ way to react – anything you feel is valid. 

If you see a disturbing image or video, you might experience:

  • shock or disbelief

  • stress or anxiety

  • sadness or grief

  • anger or frustration

  • empathy or compassion

  • helplessness or fear

  • numbness or desensitisation

  • intrusive thoughts

  • sleep issues.

Why do disturbing images and videos affect us like this?

We all have our own personal experiences that come into play, and thresholds for what we find disturbing. What a friend finds super upsetting might not upset you at all, which is completely normal. 

But, if you find that your mental health and wellbeing is affected by something you see, it’s a good idea to try and figure out why. That way, you can take better care of yourself and get support if you need it. 

For example, disturbing photos and videos might affect you because it:

  • stir up a personal traumatic experience, which can be really distressing

  • cause symptoms of PTSD through secondary and/or vicarious trauma

  • hit close to home – you might identify with the people or the situation being portrayed in the video or image

  • lead you to compare yourself to others, which can impact your self-esteem

  • disrupt your worldview and how safe or secure you might feel

  • make you feel like your emotional boundaries are being crossed

  • fuel your sense of injustice, or challenges your personal values and beliefs.

Keep in mind that video is a powerful and vivid medium, so it’s already pretty rigged against you! The combination of images and sound can intensify the impact of the content and leave a lasting impression – especially if it’s violent, inappropriate or illegal

Being constantly exposed to disturbing videos and other sensitive content, particularly on social media, can also lead to information overload. This barrage can mess with your brain’s ability to process what you’re seeing and can leave you feeling mentally exhausted and stressed. 

Another thing to remember is that when you see a disturbing image or video, it might kick your stress levels up a gear, which is your body’s natural response to coping with things you find threatening, upsetting or dangerous. When this happens, you might find yourself having what’s called a  ‘fight, flight, freeze or fawn’ response.

How to deal with disturbing images and video content

1. Hit pause

Illustration about taking a break when you see disturbing videos

It’s easier said than done, but if a video or graphic imagery becomes too much, you can always step away for a bit. This can be a simple way to break the cycle of distress and give you time and space to process your feelings. 

Try to unwind and reset by taking a few deep mindful breaths, or by going for a walk, or by having a quick stretch to release some of the stress and tension you might be feeling.

2. Find your joy

Illustration about self-care when you see disturbing videos

Listen to some calming music, make a cup of tea, read a book, get outside in nature – do whatever makes you feel better when you’re feeling down. A little self-care can go a long way, so try shifting your focus to the things that bring you joy. Check out our self-care collection for some inspiration.

3. Talk it out

Illustration about talking to someone if you see disturbing videos

If you feel comfortable, share your feelings with a trusted friend or family member. They could offer support or understanding, or simply help you to make sense of what you’ve just seen. You could also jump onto our Online Community to chat anonymously with others about your experience.

Seeing a disturbing video or image might also make you feel worried about someone you know. In this case, you could reach out to them and let them know you’re there if they need you. Here are some handy tips on how to start this convo, how to respond, and what you can do if they need a little more support.

4. Take action

Illustration about taking action when you see disturbing videos

If you’ve seen a disturbing image or video and you want to do something practical and/or positive about it, here are some ideas:

  • Do a ‘socials audit’. If you keep seeing videos or images you don’t want to see, you can always unfollow, block or mute the accounts they’re from. Seek out ones that are interesting, fun and light-hearted. Remember: you’ve got the power to curate your feeds. This guide can help you tame your social media use when the content you’re seeing is affecting your mental health.

  • Check your privacy settings. It’s worth checking and changing your privacy settings on social media services, games and apps to prevent people sending you videos or images you don’t want to see. Check out The eSafety Guide to learn how to protect your information on a range of platforms. 

  • Contact content providers. Reach out to TV or other media platforms to let them know you’re concerned. They’ll likely have contact info for feedback and complaints. 

  • Advocate for change. If you’re inspired to support causes or organisations that are working towards addressing an issue that’s highlighted in content you’ve seen, you could do some volunteering, donate to relevant charities, or speak up about the need for change. It can be empowering to channel your emotions into positive outlets.

  • Report it. If you see a video or image online that you feel is violent, inappropriate or illegal, you can always report it to eSafety. The eSafety Guide also has information on how to report on specific platforms. 

5. Get extra support

Illustration about getting extra support if you see disturbing videos

If you’re having a really tough time, it’s a good idea to get professional help. Talking with a counsellor or a psychologist can help you to get to the root of why you’re feeling a certain way and to identify what you can do about it. 

If you already see a mental health professional, reach out to make an appointment with them. Otherwise, you can book in with a GP to get started. You can also book in for a free and confidential chat with a peer worker via ReachOut PeerChat.

What can I do now?

  • If you’re feeling down about a bad world news story you’ve seen, here are some tips that could help.

  • It’s normal to feel grief when something bad happens in the world. If you or someone you know is struggling with this, here are strategies for coping

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