Managing Media Trauma

Media is a source of information which tunes us into the events of the nation and the world. It brings us information and experiences from our neighborhood to the neighborhood of a foreign land. Much of media content is composed to get your attention and increase the number of consumers. The more interesting, dramatic, taboo, exciting, and outside our normal reality, the more the public can not help but to take in what the media has to present. While there are benefits to knowing what is happening in our world, there are consequences to the volume of images and audio which barrage our senses.

When traumatic events occur, the media puts aside the day to day news and replaces it with the horrific details of how the crisis is unfolding. Whether the intention is to bring awareness, increase ratings, or document history, the public ends up glued to the news channels, papers, online forums, and social media. Our world is flooded with sights and sounds of atrocities beyond the norm. The safety and balance of our society is rattled.

It is easy to believe the screen of the TV or computer removes us from the trauma. It is becoming more and more understood the incredibly negative impact this experience has on us. A study was published in 2013 regarding the mental and physical effects of exposure to media coverage of 9/11. The authors found extensive exposure to media coverage can turn a vicarious experience into a collective trauma. Additionally, it doesn't even have to be the video and audio we often see. Simply being subjected to still pictures of strangers experiencing trauma can result in a stress response.

So how do we deal with the disasters in the world which we find both tragic and fascinating? How do we keep from being traumatized ourselves?


1.Take Notice of Your Feelings: Don't passively watch. Check in with yourself and see if you are having strong reactions of fear, anxiety, disorientation, trouble sleeping/nightmares, changes in eating, pervasive thoughts of the event, feelings of lack of safety, overwhelming sadness. Notice them and put them in context. Understand they are related to the event coverage rather than your immediate situation.

2.Express Your Feelings: To put it mildly, these things are awful. We are allowed to have a strong emotional response to them. Express your anger. Cry if needed. Just because we are not living it, does not mean we are disconnected from the devastation of our fellow humans. We are all members of the human race and empathize with the experience of others. We are equipped with empathy to feel for and be compassionate towards others. It is important to community and humanity. Dr. Ramachandran, a cognitive neuroscientist, found evidence our empathy is connected to our mirror neurons. These are the parts of our brain which cause a baby, within the first month of life, to stick its tongue out just as their parent does. It's the learning which takes place by watching and mimicking others. If we watch someone reach for candy, the same areas of our brain light up as if we were reaching for candy ourselves. If we watch someone in anguish and fear, the same areas of our brain will light up as if the fear and anguish was ours. There is a feeling of connection to those we see in the media clips and will feel sad and scared for them. Express this and permit yourself to be okay with having these feelings.

3.Turn It Off: If you are having overwhelming reactions, turn it off. Turn off the TV. Stop searching the internet. Take a break from social media. A digital detox is recommended under normal circumstances. A digital detox is a great way to shut down this influx of terror and allow yourself to manage those feelings.

4.Mindfulness: Meditation and mindfulness calm the stress responses. It refocuses us on the here and now. It directs our mind away from the "what ifs", worse case scenarios, and universalizing of the fear.

5.Self-Care: When we are mindful of our self, we can identify our needs and tend to them. Maintaining a regular sleep cycle, continuing with a normal eating pattern, regular activity, and engagement in enjoyable activities helps to manage stress responses to a collective trauma.

 6.Look for the Good: Terroristic acts are meant to destroy a large population through fear and destruction. As a people, we respond with some very contrary behaviors. We become closer and demonstrate a selflessness not seen under normal circumstances. People sacrifice their safety to save others. Communities pull together to rebuild that which has crumbled around them. Large stadiums of people come together in moments of silence. Masses of people give of their time and resources to provide for those in need. There are an abundance of stories of bravery. These are the stories which deserve focus and remind us there is a lot of good in our life. Use these stories to identify other goods in your life and have appreciation for the things we do have.

7.Don't Forget the Children: It is easy to think our kids don't understand and, therefore, aren't effected by what is happening. Keep in mind their reactions may not be obvious so it is harder to see the impact it is having on them. The same study on the effect of media exposure mentioned previously also measured the impact of media exposure of 9/11 on children. They found children as far as London demonstrated post traumatic stress responses to the event. This brings to light the reactions children can have to the news.           

Some responses to take notice of are increased stress, anxiety, fear, grief, difficulty concentrating, themes of disasters or death in their play or art work, and behavior problems. You can help ease these reactions by helping them understand what is happening, put the event in context, explain how the media works as far as sensationalizing and their focus in crises, help them remember good things, reassure them of their safety, and be sure to validate their feelings. Avoid things such as telling them they are overreacting or it didn't happen to them so they shouldn't be so upset. If their responses become intrusive and disrupt their daily functioning, it is okay to talk to professionals (e.g, school staff or counselors) about helping your child process what they are going through.


In the end, let us not over estimate our immunity to these issues. Let us not underestimate our resiliency. It is difficult to know of these acts and the devastation they cause but we are able to manage these feelings and move forward. Proactive care of ourselves is a great protective factor to prevent stress and collective trauma.

-Alison Atkins, MA, LPCC                                                                                                 

Posted on October 5, 2017 .