How a Tragedy from Across the Country Can Affect Us

Recently in America there have been a number of tragedies that have generated significant media attention, and rightly so.  From September 11th in 2001 to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, which has recently re-surfaced in the news, our citizens have been very conscious of the harm being done on our own soil.  These tragedies frequently appear to be citizen attacking citizen.  When this happens, it seems to intensify the emotional experience that is felt, for a number of reasons.  Such examples include Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Trayvon Martin, this spring’s riots in Baltimore, and most recently, the mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina.

Even when these tragedies occur hundreds of miles away from where we might be living or in a place that we have never been, the emotional experience can still be powerful.  We are hurt and saddened by the things that certain people are willing to do to other people.  The question then becomes, how can we all manage, in the healthiest way possible, to heal from these events that just appear to continue?  Research suggests that consistent exposure to mass media coverage, when events like this occur, can actually cause acute stress reactions in the viewer.   Some of these symptoms can include intrusive thoughts about the event, feeling on edge, feeling emotionally detached or indifferent, and avoiding things or people that remind you of the event that occurred.

Research completed at the University of California – Irvine, assessed the effects of media exposure of the Boston Marathon bombing immediately following the event.  The study noted that six or more hours of fairly constant exposure to a variety of media sources, such as TV, radio, print news, online news, and social media, will have negative effects on the viewer.   Researchers found that indirect exposure through the media was actually a stronger predictor of experiencing an acute stress reaction than the direct exposure of actually being in Boston that day.  Although this may seem a little hard to believe, the point that you cannot get away from is the idea that media exposure can be just as, if not more damaging, than actually being at the scene of a traumatic event.  Even given this information and how watching this material makes us feel overall, we still may find it difficult to turn away.  We may feel like it is our duty to educate ourselves and remain up-to-date on the current situation.  Some may even feel like giving an appropriate amount of time to watching such events demonstrates a level of empathy and support for the individuals who are suffering.  However, for our own mental health, we may need to consider what and how much media coverage we need to engage in.

You may want to take a personal assessment when watching such news programming and notice if you are feeling especially anxious or stressed.  If you are having trouble turning off the TV or stopping yourself from researching such an event on the internet you may need to limit yourself.  This can become especially troublesome if you are reducing other recreational activities or your sleep is being negatively influenced.  If you notice any of these symptoms, it would be beneficial to consider the amount of media coverage you are watching and if it is helpful for you.  Other strategies to utilize include limiting watching or researching this material before bedtime or speaking to people frequently about the event, particularly if it is in an effort to gain additional information.   A general curiosity and concern for our fellow countrymen is a healthy and common feeling; however, when taken to the extreme, it can start to negatively influence our own lives, encouraging the tragedy to live on.


Authored By:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD