Existential Crisis Online: Where is the Trauma Hidden?

Contemporary literature defines racism and ethnoviolence as one of the main catalysts for causing traumas in individuals, where racism is a system of oppression based on racial categories and domination considering one group to be superior while the others inferior, and ethnoviolence is violence and intimidation of members of particular ethnic groups who are stigmatized by the dominant culture to maintain their status in society (Helms & Nicolas, 2010: 54). Undoubtedly, a continuous exposure to violent oppression regarding a person’s inherent cultural or racial self- integrity may shape PTSD symptoms. This is happening mainly because both racial and ethnic features are innate, and individuals are victimized due to their identity that under pressure leads to denial of their self-identity and self-hatred or constant fear to be judged and blocked from opportunities. In other words, on a regular basis individuals receive a reminder from a society that they belong to a marginalized group, and this fact shapes a cycle of oppression so the brain stays in the state of constant alert, developing symptoms such as aggression, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc. 

Now, the dilemma of trauma targeting minority groups is that mostly it involves psychological abuse rather than the physical one, and for this reason, it is easy to overlook the problem since it may be a victim’s subjective interpretation of events. Thus, the scholarship has identified that it is important to distinguish the difference between harassment and discrimination. If, indeed, the harassment includes the active person-level discrimination that is more straightforward, the discrimination itself is more passive and may be emotionally avoidant. Helms and Nicolas (2010) revealed the findings that “people’s psychological and emotional reactions to racial harassment were more intense and lasted longer than their reactions to racial discrimination” (Helms & Nicolas, 2010: 56). What’s more, another investigation shows a high correlation between identity-based violence and symptoms as well: the higher levels of such racism-related experiences, the higher levels of general stress, suicidal ideation, state and trait anxiety, and clinical depression are being produced (Helms & Nicolas, 2010: 58). Hence, it is possible to conclude that the more racism or ethnoviolence takes the harassment approach, the more interpersonal it becomes, and receives more adverse impact on an individual’s self-reflection and self-recognition in society. Despite the missing traces of physical abuse, psychological abuse involves verbal and non-verbal communication: with racism and ethnoviolence it includes the negative treatment that a victim cannot change (gender, race, ethnicity, religion) causing existential crisis. This is crucial to highlight because it is massive and being characterized with inner conflicts due to confusion of personal identity. Consequently, it destroys an individual’s vision of the world, making him/her vulnerable in every single aspect: self-development, personal relationships, career, etc. 

That being said, writing this blog post, I would like to state that even though identity-based traumas are silent, they cause alienation that deeply affects emotional, cognitive as well as behavioral elements of an individual. The revealed fact that passive discrimination does not contribute as much as the individual harassment, does not mean that it does not add to each person individually as a global tendency shaping the overall climate of alienation. Discrimination cannot receive a full acceptance as a matter of fact, rather it is manifested through unreported PTSD symptoms that these individuals tend to deny as a priori position themselves as a failure due to both overall discrimination and individual harassment. However, previously each representative of minority groups could experience discrimination in particular dimensions of life such as job applications, healthcare, criminal justice system, education that are more systemic at this point, while returning to communities they could have regained support from each other to maintain positive attitudes that contribute to the personal growth and reduction of stress. It reminds me of Jane McGonigal’s performance regarding the post-traumatic growth where she has developed a game approach called “Superbetter” with the stages of recruiting allies, battling the bad guys and activating the power-ups (Rousseau, Module 1, 2023: 8). This is why the past is full of motivational stories of success among African Americans starting from sports, music/entertainment industry and finishing with politics. Conversely, today the world has shifted towards the implementation of advanced technology and spread of social media that made us accessible and visible wherever we are, unless we are connected to the Internet. The space without time and territorial boundaries established the new reality where it has become possible to freely express your opinion on everything, while reaching everyone with a distance of one click. While we are at home, in our workplace or in the restaurant with our friends, we are exposed to people’s judgments online via their posted comments. Thus, I claim that racism and ethnoviolence has received a new form of manifestation in the cyber environment: this is the hateful speech online against minority groups or particular ethnic groups that tends to tremendously contribute to the alienation of individuals, developing an existential crisis followed by PTSD symptoms.   

The controversy of the given issue is that minority groups are being targeted by users online being exposed to traumatic non-stop experiences without proper protection by law enforcement. This occurs due to the First Amendment in the US Constitution where basically oppressive comments are being covered by the freedom of speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. This fact makes victimized people accept their struggles on a daily basis, while entering a cycle of psychological abuse and accumulating all possible post traumatic symptoms. Now, hateful speech can be considered as “words that wound”, even though as it was stated there is no direct physical violence applied. The amount of hate exposure measures the extent of trauma that we eventually get. Thus, it is necessary to know how this procedure works. First, what provokes the danger to happen is the fact that Internet forums / social media shape a digital relationship between anonymous or pseudo-anonymous users, suitable targets for hateful or defamatory messages and the ISP (the Internet Service Provider) that serves as a gateway (Nel, 2007: 193-195). Interestingly, anonymity in this relationship is a variable that enables one’s identity to be concealed for enjoying the social benefit of privacy and free speech (according to the First Amendment in the US jurisdiction) but simultaneously creates a hole in the protection of an individual’s inalienable rights, in particular, the freedom from discrimination and degrading treatment. Meanwhile, a suitable target as a variable falls into the received gap, precisely, focusing on the category of minority groups. The interaction online starts as a regular comment/post, then grows into a hateful message and finally reaches its climax at subsequent hate speech. This leads to a research question: can we balance the rights of free speech belonging to a user and the rights of equal treatment and personal security that are inherently owned by a targeted victim online (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948: Articles 1-5)? The lack of this balance currently results in the deprivation of individual dignity with a subsequent increase in dehumanizing victims since what exactly is targeted in minorities is their personal profile (sexual identity, race, religion, etc), leading to damage of their psychological state, brain or other irreversible outcomes such as alienation, loneliness, despair and finally, suicidal thoughts. 

In the settings of the current unstable political climate, I would like to illustrate how this phenomenon affects not only racial minorities but also larger populations of ethnic groups. Once the Russian-Ukrainian conflict started, a lot of social media such as mainly Facebook and Instagram exploded with the amount of hateful comments regarding Russians being all killers and aggressors, even though from the ongoing events not all the country’s population supported the invasive actions of the government. Comments by users contained violence and threats where the main message was that “Russian nation should be eradicated”. For this reason, the Russian authorities took a decision to prohibit Instagram in the Russian jurisdiction, claiming that it is violence-oriented platform trespassing on the individual dignity of citizens. Personally being of Russian origin, even though I was not directly affected by hateful comments (since I limit my participation in the digital daily routine), I received vicarious trauma from reading the hate from thousands of users. As a regular civilian, I couldn’t understand why they wanted me to die just for being ethnically who I am, while I am not even closely related to the ongoing military actions. My trauma started growing from the fact that I did not want to answer questions regarding my descent because I did not want to be judged and finished with self-blaming why I happened to be born as Russian. This journey of trauma demonstrates that I entered the existential crisis, started being confused about who I am since my ethnic background was questioned. Consequently, racism and ethnoviolence tend to break mentally individuals, and if this experience is uniquely new for them, they may not be familiar with how to handle their feelings and opt for silence.  

To conclude, I chose racism and ethnoviolence as an overlooked type of accelerators for trauma among racial minorities and ethnic groups. Even though the scholarship is cautious with these issues due to subjective interpretations, the research revealed that harassment may exacerbate PTSD symptoms compared to passive discrimination. However, I claim that today we experience a new catalyst of traumas which is hateful speech online due to the advent of advanced technology and the Internet. I find the given event anti-spatial and diffusing, meaning that it can contribute to people’s exposure to oppression and trauma anywhere anytime, without any right to escape. I have also commented on the contentious lack of legal protection that makes racial minorities and ethnic groups vulnerable and thus more swiftly exposed to the gain of traumatic experiences and development of PTSD symptoms since they enter an existential crisis that is characterized as the confusion of identity. Thus, identity is the main targeted asset that perpetrators aim for to humiliate victims. With assistance of the personal example of online ethnoviolence, I demonstrated how the given relationship operates and which directions trauma may take if being overlooked. To combat the given issue, I think we should find the balance in how to ensure “digital security” on a legal level by avoiding excuses such as freedom of speech since this phenomenon cannot cross somebody else’s boundaries, otherwise it takes the form of injustice. Furthermore, I believe that we should invest more resources in educating people’s digital literacy because sometimes the reason why individuals do not report their PTSD symptoms is because they do not realize that they have them just because of constant exposure to stress, violence and discrimination online. The more awareness is being shaped on this problem, the more people or their relatives, community members may recognise the need for help to prevent the development of the given symptoms in advance.   


  1. Helms, J., Nicolas, G., & Green, C. (2010, January 01). Racism and Ethnoviolence as Trauma: Enhancing Professional Training. Traumatology, 16(4) 53-62.   
  2. Nel, S. (2007). Online Defamation: The Problem of Unmasking Anonymous Online Critics. The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa, 40(2), 193–214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23252662        
  3. Rousseau, D. (2023). Trauma and Crisis Intervention. Module 1. Introduction to Trauma. MET CJ 720. Boston University. 
  4. U.S. Constitution – First Amendment | Resources | Constitution … (n.d.). https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1/ 
  5. United Nations. (n.d.). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights 

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One comment

  1. Hi Alina,

    In conclusion, racism and ethnoviolence become more interpersonal when it is viewed from a harassment perspective. I appreciate your approach. As a result, self-reflection and self-recognition in society are negatively affected. I agree that one of the reasons for this is that individuals who experience racism or ethnoviolence often experience feelings of segregation and depreciation, leading to low self-esteem and a feeling of worthlessness. One is thus at risk of losing their identity and the ability to recognize themselves in social situations.
    I used to live in Boston and had a job walking around different businesses selling things. One day, another team member and I walked into a restaurant with customers seated. From behind the counter, one of the workers yelled, “You need to leave.” I assumed he was speaking to us both. But he repeated it, distinguishing between my teammate and me, who was a man. He said, “You can stay, but her kind is not welcome here.” I wasn’t sure what to say or how to feel. The place was full of people, and no one else said anything, including my teammate. All I could do was simply turn around and walk out. To this day, I still remember the experience.
    I intend to share this information to assist you with your point. Although physical abuse is not present, psychological abuse can occur both verbally and non-verbally. Victims of racism and ethnoviolence can experience negative treatment that leaves them feeling isolated and emotionally unrecognizable.

    All the Best to You,

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