The cavalcade of natural and unnatural disasters unfolding across the United States and the world seem recently to be more frequent while growing exponentially in their horror and destruction: hurricanes, earthquakes, mass shootings, not to mention a political landscape fraught with tension and the threat of nuclear war.
Even for those not personally affected by the recent disasters, watching them unfold on television, computers or smartphones or listening in on radio can become overwhelming, triggering depression anxiety and stress, experts say.
Even 50 years ago, before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, Americans reported psychological effects from watching hours-long coverage of the Kennedy assassination and funeral.
Likewise, a Pew Research study following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 found that high percentages of Americans surveyed were experiencing depression and insomnia and a lack of focus; women were more affected than men. Many surveyed said while they were horrified by the images, they couldn’t stop watching. Parents began restricting children’s viewing time.
Now, with 24/7, minute- by-minute “breaking news” updates that include raw footage of mass shootings and wounded victims, storm-ravaged towns and people buried in earthquake rubble, people may not fully appreciate the effects.
“People can definitely underestimate the impact of these events,” said Lisa Ferentz, a licensed clinical social worker, trauma specialist and founder of the Ferentz Institute in Pikesville in an email interview. “In today’s world we are not only absorbing the information, we are visually taking in graphic imagery that puts our brains and bodies into the experience, often in real time. This gives us another, much deeper layer of trauma to process.”
Although it may be difficult to stop watching and listening, Ferentz urges people to limit their exposure before the stories and images become overwhelming.
“It’s particularly challenging when your information source is the internet, because going online is inherently addicting. One link leads to another, and you can unwittingly be surfing the net for hours without realizing it,” she said. “I also discourage people from watching the news or revisiting these tragedies right before bed. When the last images your brain takes in before sleep are upsetting ones, it increases the likelihood of sleep disturbances and nightmares.”
Stacey Meadows is a licensed clinical social worker and manager of Child Therapy Services at Jewish Community Services. She suggests reducing social media contact and avoiding repeated, sensationalized news when crises become difficult to absorb.
“This information comes to us when we least expect it, and maybe least able to digest it. In these moments it may be helpful to go “off the grid” – choosing not to log into social media outlets [and to] turn off app notifications and alerts, and choosing not to watch the news or perhaps broadcast TV at all until you feel you are ready and able to handle what you might see,” she said in an email. “It’s important to, whenever possible, avoid sensationalized media broadcasts. Research has shown that this kind of media coverage can induce significant, and sometimes clinical, trauma response in both adults and children.”
Parents and caregivers should keep an eye on children, limiting their exposure and erring on the side of less information rather than more, while considering the age of the child and their ability to understand and process frightening experiences, according to Ferentz.
“It’s also important to reassure children that within their home they are safe. In this day and age, news blackouts are almost impossible to achieve — the information is available everywhere,” she said. “I think the best solution for adults is a balance between some degree of awareness about what’s going on in the world and refocusing on safe and loving face-to-face interactions as well as the positive things we have to be grateful for in our lives.”
Although people may worry “that could happen to me,” feel paralyzed or powerless, Ferentz said having a heightened sense of awareness and taking steps to enhance safety can help people feel more in control.
“We reduce our sense of anxiety when we exert whatever control we do have,” Ferentz said.
She offered tips for feeling safer in large gatherings, including staying on the periphery of a crowd, rather than the center; knowing where the exits are; coordinating with family and friends on where to meet if separated; and taking proper precautions and storing supplies for weather threats.
“All of these things can reduce anxiety because they are proactive, but it’s equally important to remember that when something untoward happens, it’s never our fault,” she added. “Other ways that people cope include calling upon their spiritual faith and beliefs, turning things over to a ‘higher power’ and focusing on the acts of heroism and courage during tragic events to reinforce the belief that people are still overwhelmingly kind and caring.”
People should watch out for symptoms that could indicate anxiety, depression and other psychological effects, including excessive worry or increased irritability; isolation or avoidance of places and activities due to excessive fear; insomnia, nightmares and other sleep disturbances; pervasive, negative thoughts; body pain and physical discomfort such as headaches, stomach upset or limb pain without organic cause; loss of concentration and focus; feelings of helplessness or hopelessness; loss of faith; or suicidal thoughts.
And people should take these times to take care of themselves, Meadows said, “to be with those that they are close to, and to seek support from family and friends, or a therapist, who can help them to process their feelings about what is happening.”
Ferentz said it is important to seek professional help if these so-called “by products of trauma” begin to impact a person’s ability to function at work, school or in relationships or if they are feeling physical or emotional effects.
“If the way in which you are coping with traumatic events is self-destructive — numbing with drugs, alcohol, food, addictive video gaming, acts of self-mutilation, etc. then it’s imperative to speak with a mental health professional to learn healthier ways to self-soothe,” Ferentz said. “It’s also indicated when a current tragedy rekindles a past traumatic experience and brings back to the surface any unresolved thoughts, feelings and memories that become overwhelming.”
For people who have limited access to mental health resources, self-help books can also be of value, according to Ferentz, offering “support, hope and healthy strategies for comfort and self-soothing, particularly when faced with past or present trauma.”