This is the second of a series of three posts looking at how incessant media coverage in this day and age of sensational, and too often disturbing headlines, can impact your mental health. In our first post, we explored the general effects of the deluge of information media coverage feeds to the public. This week: How does the all-too-often coverage of tragic events affect those who’ve experienced trauma? In our third and final post for this series, we present media coverage and mental health: how the news stigmatizes mental illness and misrepresents the vast majority of those who seek mental health care. For our first post on this topic, visit this link.
“Trauma is an experience that overwhelms your capacity to cope. People feel helpless, overwhelmed, scared, horrified; at the core of trauma is horror.”
— Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
When we see or hear news reports of violence or devastating natural disasters, it is normal for us to have an emotional response. Our current state of mind, how strong our coping skills are, and our past experience of dealing with heightened emotion, stress, anxiety and depression can all affect how we react to a particular story. Studies show that continued exposure to news coverage of traumatic events can have a greater toll on our emotional health than actually being there (Nauert, 2013). So it is not surprising that people who are already emotionally and psychologically vulnerable are at even greater risk from the effects of exposure to this type of coverage.
Sydney, a nursing major at Colorado Christian University, was an eighth grader at Deer Creek Middle School when a man with a rifle shot two students there on February 23, 2010. “I had a weird feeling and wanted to get on the bus early,” she says. Two of her friends didn’t understand why she was in such a rush, but they got on the bus with her anyway. As students were leaving the school, some congregating outside, a man with a high-powered rifle began shooting. He shot into the group of friends Sydney would have been standing with if she hadn’t felt compelled to get right on the bus. Sydney’s close friend at the time, Reagan, was in that group. A bullet passed between her arm and her body, but left shrapnel embedded in her arm. The gunman reloaded and shot randomly, hitting another student, who was critically injured. (Both students were taken to the hospital and, thankfully, survived.)
Sydney saw the shooter, but didn’t realize it was an actual gun until she heard the shots. Everyone on the bus ducked down on the floor and she covered herself with her backpack. Her bus was at the end of the line, closest to the shooting. The bus drivers at the front were possibly unaware of what was happening and weren’t leaving. Sydney’s bus just had to wait. “It felt like forever until they drove off,” she says.
When Sydney got home, she turned the news on right away. It was early and the reporters were giving wrong information, saying that people died. Still, she kept watching over the next couple of days. Though her parents are divorced and she was staying with her mom, her dad came over and slept on the couch at her request. He watched the news with her, but when he saw it becoming too much for her, he suggested turning it off. “The principal cried on the news,” Sydney remembers. “That’s when I thought it might be time to stop watching.”
Sydney describes herself as “normally more anxious than most kids.” She has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and, as a young child she had a fear of kidnapping. Her anxiety and OCD worsened after the shooting. She developed unhealthy means of coping, such as sleeping with her mom for six months.
She didn’t start going to counseling until her freshman year of high school, but found that it helped her cope with her anxiety. She also discovered a strong faith in God that helps her as well. “It’s taken a long time. I’m still obviously coping with it,” she says. She still has strong reactions to news of other shootings. She was a high school senior when she heard about the shooting at Arapahoe High School. “It brought back those feelings of panic. I had to leave school.”
Even just the idea of a shooting can cause her distress. “My little sister came home telling my parents about the lock down drill they had at school. They were in a closet and couldn’t open the door. It tears me down thinking about a closet full of six year olds, crying and scared, and that my sister has to grow up in a place where shootings are real.” She says she loves her sister more than anything. The shooting at Sandy Hook was really hard for her to read and hear about because the kids involved were her sister’s age.
Since those first terrible days and weeks following the shooting at Deer Creek Middle School, Sydney has developed healthy coping skills for when these incidents occur. “I sit down, close my eyes, and breathe deeply. I tell myself and my body that I’m okay. If I’m with someone, I’ll say, ‘Just put your hand on my back.’ That physical contact helps,” she explains. She talks to friends who were at Deer Creek, and others who experienced similar traumatic events. Being with people who went through the same thing is reassuring. They help each other feel the fear and anxiety, and then move through it.
Still, her recovery is an ongoing process. “I have to consciously work through it every time. It doesn’t get easier.” She can’t watch television shows or movies that depict violence. The sound of balloons popping or fireworks sends her into a panic.
She still tries to watch the news when there is another shooting. “Sometimes it is helpful. I feel like I have more control knowing that people are trying to fix [the situation.]” However, she adds, “Sometimes it’s toxic. I have to determine if it’s making me feel better or worse.”
People who have experienced a trauma may be more likely to tune in to news coverage of traumatic events as a way of coping with feelings, memories, and physical symptoms that are triggered by a new traumatic event – even one that does not impact them. Experts advise limiting that exposure, but when a tragedy takes over radio, television and social media, avoiding it to any significant degree can be difficult. Some ways to cope include:
- Keep to your regular routine as much as possible.
- Eat balanced meals and get plenty of rest.
- Attend a support group.
- Work with a therapist.
- Continue to take any prescribed medication, but don’t use alcohol or illegal drugs to cope with stress.
- Spend time doing things you enjoy.
- Find ways to help others.
- Stay physically active. Take walks or engage in other light exercise to relieve stress.
If coverage of disturbing events is triggering strong reactions to your own past trauma, consider seeking some insights from a therapist. Whether you sought care immediately after your trauma experience or are only now taking that step, a professional therapist can help you understand your responses and how to work with them. Many Maria Droste Counseling Center therapists have extensive experience with trauma and use a variety of methods to help clients overcome it. Our intake department is staffed by practicing therapists who remove the guess work and uncertainty in choosing a therapist that fits your needs. They are familiar with our practice member’s specializations, schedules, and even payment information, and can help you find a therapist that’s right for you.
Maria Droste Intake Department: 303-756-9052 x127
Next week we will finish this series with a look at how coverage of violent events fuel destructive misconceptions about mental health and people struggling with mental illness.
For the full series of posts in this topic, please see the links below:
How to Keep the Media from Increasing Your Stress: Three-Part Series
Part I – Media Coverage of Tragic Events
Part II – Sydney’s Story
Part III – Media Coverage and Mental Health Stigma
Nauert PhD, R. (2013). Too Much Trauma Coverage Can Be More Stressful Than Being There. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2015, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2013/12/11/too-much-trauma-coverage-can-be-more-stressful-than-being-there/63155.html
DBSA (n.d.). Coping With Unexpected Events: Depression and Trauma. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Retrieved on August 13, 2015, from https://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_brochures_coping_unexpected_events