Stressed Out From Violent Events: Take a Media Break

Harold Mandel's picture
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Memories of modern day massacres such as the Boson Marathon bombings and that which
occurred at Sandy Hook, have evoked powerful emotional responses in many people. Images of the United States being turned into a war zone with explosions, blood and mangled and dead bodies has generated fear, anxiety and depression in people of all ages. In order to avoid these intense emotional responses from becoming incapacitating it may be a good idea to take a break from overexposure to media coverage of these events.

The role of the media in broadcasting acute stress reactions in the aftermath of collective traumas may set off psychological distress in people who are not part of the community which was directly affected by these events, reports the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Researchers investigated whether or not repeated media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings had an association with acute stress responses.

There was a comparison made between the impact of direct exposure to the bombings versus media exposure. Direct exposure referred to being at or near the bombings. Media exposure includes exposure to:

1: Bombing-related television

2: Radio

3: Print

4: Online

5: Social media coverage

It was found that repeated bombing associated media exposure to the bombings was linked to episodes of higher acute stress than was direct exposure. Clearly, media coverage in the aftermath of collective traumas can diffuse acute stress dramatically. It was observed six or more hours daily of bombing-related media exposure in the week just after the bombings was associated with higher acute stress than direct exposure to the bombings.

It has been concluded that repeatedly engaging with trauma associated media content for several hours daily just after collective trauma has the potential to prolong acute stress experiences and to promote substantial stress associated symptomatology. Mass media may create a channel that spreads negative consequences of community trauma far beyond the communities that are directly affected

Clearly, spending less time watching events from a violent event on the television, computer screen or smartphone may be good for your mental health, according to UC Irvine. This was the consensus of researchers from UC Irvine which showed six or more hours a day of exposure to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in the week just after the incident was associated with more acute stress than having actually been at or near the Boston Marathon bombings. It was found that symptoms of acute stress increased with each added hour of bombing associated media exposure via television, social media, videos, print or radio.

E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine and the study’s lead author, has said, “We were very surprised that repeated media exposure was so strongly associated with acute stress symptoms.” It is suspected that there is something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds which keeps traumatic events alive in the mind and which can prolong the stress response in people who are vulnerable. In fact there has been growing evidence that live and video images of traumatic events have the potential to set off flashbacks and to nurture fear conditioning. Repeatedly seeing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and nurtures rumination. Serious health consequences may follow. This study has challenged the assumption that people must be directly exposed to a traumatic event to be at risk for stress associated disorders.

The findings from this study also raise questions about the exclusion of media associated exposure as a possible trigger for trauma response among nonprofessionals, in the latest edition of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychology & social behavior, medicine and public health at UC Irvine and the study’s co-author, has said, “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.” Silver says that the new findings from this study supports the growing body of research which suggests that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror.

In this study people who were exposed to six or more hours daily of bombing associated media coverage were found to be nine times more likely to report high acute stress than people with minimal media exposure of less than one hour daily. Symptoms of acute stress include:

1: Intrusive thoughts

2: Feeling on edge or hypervigilant

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3: Avoiding reminders of the event

4: Feeling detached from the event

There are all kinds of ways six or more hours of media exposure to such traumatic events can occur. Silver points out people may have streaming news on their computer screen while they’re working, they can have the radio news on in the background, they may check Facebook or Twitter on and off, and they may watch a few hours of television here and there. It is Silver's position that people who engage in such behavior are not more likely to have a pre-existing mental health condition or a predisposition for experiencing negative psychological responses. They are however not aware of the impact of this media exposure.

The researchers think that the trauma associated with experiencing violent events in person is significant. They also think repeated viewing of horrible images can do significant emotional harm. People appear to be at greater risk for significant psychological trauma if they have had previous exposure to collective traumas, such as the 9/11 attacks or the Sandy Hook school shooting, and if they have a pre-existing mental health condition. Continual exposure to traumatic events over a lifetime also generates a greater risk of developing acute stress. If you repeatedly see images of a person with bloody injuries after the event is over, it’s as if the event continues and now has its own presence in your life. A chronic form of stress can result from prolonged media exposure to such events.

Because everyone experiences stress at some time in their life, everyone needs to develop good methods to promote the relaxation response, or the natural unwinding of the stress response, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. With relaxation there is a lowering of blood pressure, respiration, and pulse rate. Muscle tension is also released and emotional strain is eased. Some good suggestions to help cope with stress naturally include:

1: Meditation

2: Yoga

3: Hypnosis

4: Acupuncture

5: Deep Breathing Exercises

6: Muscle Relaxation techniques

7: Biofeedback

8: Massage Therapy

9: Aromatherapy with lavender

10: The herb valerian

I recently wrote an article for EmaxHealth about how a new therapy called ART may help post traumatic stress disorder.

It appears to me that the addiction to watching repeated episodes of traumatic events on the media is almost as troubling as the spreading addiction to commit these events. In this era of heightened violence there has clearly been a contagious spread of committing violent acts, particularly among troubled individuals and people who are on psychiatric mind altering drugs,
which has been rolling over into a profitable media hype surrounding these events. The media coverage of traumatic events is produced as well as Hollywood movies dealing with such dramatic events, which has an almost addicting effect on people. Findings of increased stress in association with such exposure are troubling.

Clearly, considerations of a psychological phenomenon which causes a cascade of more violent events followed by more stressful responses to these events is unsettling the entire society. The consistent reports of even more volatile acts of terror and stressful responses to these acts with psychiatric intervention, which generally consists of the prescribing of toxic drugs which alter the normal biochemistry of the brain, means that more aggressive initiatives must be used to institute humane natural mental health care interventions to deal with these problems.

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