When traumatic events hit — whether it's a hurricane, flood, or rampaging gunman — it's easy to become glued to the TV or the Internet to keep up with the coverage. But paying this kind of close attention can actually make the events more traumatizing and lead to more anxiety in the weeks afterward.
While it’s good to be aware of what is going on, it is also possible to be too aware of events that have already occurred and over which we have no control.
Two to four weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, researchers surveyed almost 4,700 Americans to see how the event had affected them. People were asked how much direct experience they had with the incident, as well as how much indirect exposure through media coverage including TV, Internet, social media, print news, and radio.
People were questioned about how anxious they had been feeling and whether they had experienced any symptoms of acute stress: Had unwanted thoughts about the event come to mind? Were they deeply worried and on guard against possible threats? Did they find themselves feeling on edge and avoiding reminders of the event or feeling detached from it?
There is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror.
Those who had the most exposure to the event through the media, viewing over six hours of coverage per day, had nine times the level of acute stress, compared to people who watched only one hour of coverage per day.
The same UC Irvine resarch team had found that exposure to the violent images of earlier national traumas was linked to greater distress symptoms. “In our prior work, we found that early and repeated exposure to violent images from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the Iraq War may have led to an increase in physical and psychological ailments up to three years [later],” study author Roxane Cohen Silver said in a news release.
“Our new findings contribute to the growing body of research suggesting that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror.”
While it’s important to stay abreast of events, the researchers caution that too much exposure through graphic images and other media can cause it to take on a life of its own, and become even larger than it is. Moreover, it can turn an acute or intense short-term stressful experience into a long-term stressful experience, from which it can be harder to recover.
“When you repeatedly see images of a person with gruesome injuries after an event is over, it's like the event continues and has its own presence in your life,” said co-author E. Alison Holman.
“Prolonged media exposure can turn what was an acute experience into a chronic form of stress. People may not realize how stressful these media-based exposures are. Looking at these images over and over again is not productive and may be harmful.”
For people with preexisting mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, it’s especially important to monitor your exposure to media coverage of traumatic events. It’s good to acknowledge the reality of the traumas, but you have to take care of yourself as well.
Media coverage these days can be graphic and unrelenting, and it’s probably best to stay informed, rather than overwhelmed. If you’re suffering from any kind of post-traumatic stress, or finding that you can’t get the negative events out of your mind, it’s important to talk with a mental health care professional.
The study was carried out by a team at University of California Irvine and was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.