Experts: Constant exposure to coverage of violence can be harmful

October 30, 2018 GMT


That’s the word that Dr. Jeffrey Deitz used to describe the effect of attacks like the one that killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Acts of violence in places that are supposed to be safe — such as synagogues or churches or schools — are also assaults on our long-held standards of right and wrong, said Deitz, assistant professor of psychiatry at Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine.

“If you keep piling on these tragedies one after the other, at first people become numb,” Deitz said. “Then there’s this disillusionment of there being no sacred place or no safe place. The word I use is demoralization. It’s demoralizing to see that, anything you believe in, you can’t believe in any more.”

Though Deitz was hesitant to say whether this uprooting of beliefs could cause mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, he did say it could have an effect on one’s mental well-being. Other experts agreed, and said watching news coverage of tragedies such as the one in Pittsburgh can be traumatizing, particularly for those who are already battling mental health issues.

“The fact is, we are constantly bombarded with traumatic news on an alarmingly regular basis,” said Dr. Cheryl Wilczak, clinical psychologist and owner of Greenwich-based Harbor Bridge Emotional Health LLC in an email.

Indeed, research shows that watching coverage of traumatic events can be damaging even to those not directly affected by the events. A 2012 study published in the journal Psychological Science showed that watching coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and of the start of the Iraq war, led to elevated stress levels in some cases.

Through an Internet-based survey of 1,322 people, researchers obtained assessments of participants’ mental and physical health before 9/11 and immediately after the attacks and after the initiation of the Iraq war. Researchers also conducted annual follow-up assessments in the three years following 9/11.

Researchers found that nearly 12 percent of participants reported high levels of stress due to 9/11 and about 7 percent reported high stress levels because of the Iraq war. The study also showed that people who watched four or more hours a day of TV coverage related to the war or 9/11 were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress.

The findings reflect the work that Dr. Hadar Lubin has done for years. Lubin is a psychiatrist and co-director of the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven. She said watching coverage of shootings and other violent events “can be vicariously traumatic.” This is especially true of people who are already survivors of violence or violent attacks, Lubin said.

“It’s going to exacerbate their fears associated with that initial trauma,” she said.

Coping with trauma

Experts said there are ways to cope with vicarious trauma and to move forward with life.

One way is by using a technique called re-framing, said Dr. Andre Newfield, chairman of psychiatry at St. Vincent’s Behavioral Health Services in Westport, a program of Bridgeport-based St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

“You can look at something one way, and give yourself a totally different feeling by looking at it another way,” Newfield said.

For example, instead of feeling so overwhelmed and frightened by news of horrific events that you find it hard to pursue daily activities, Newfield said, try a different perspective: “Tell yourself ‘Every day is a blessing and I need to live life fully,’ ” he said.

Wilczak also offered some coping strategies, including becoming politically active.

“If people are having post-traumatic stress disorder type symptoms, they need to see a professional,” she said. “For the rest of us, I would recommend periodically taking breaks from following the news if it becomes unbearable to watch. Get some distance. Nurture ourselves. Go out into beautiful, serene environments. Deep breath. Exercise regularly. Eat well. Volunteer and make a difference to others. But most of all, do things that matter to reverse bad circumstances that are right in front of us. Vote. Vote. Vote.”