What happens when you hear of devastating news within your family, at your workplace, or in society at large?
For many of us, the first response is often shock, then fear, and perhaps anger or resentment. For individuals who have a history of trauma, repeatedly watching the news or hearing of traumatic events can cause regression into further trauma symptoms or a need for more intense therapy.
This article will highlight and discuss the ways the media (including social media) can negatively affect us all including individuals with trauma histories. I will also offer tips on how to cope.
As a therapist, I must stay up-to-date with what is going on in the world at large and not just in my community. I must stay informed about the various things in the world that can affect my client’s lives in some way. All mental health professionals have to be self-sufficient by frequently engaging in the process of learning. In fact, many of us, as professionals, must take classes, seminars, webinars, and other continuing education opportunities to maintain our license and credentials. We are held to a high standard by our State Board to remain engaged. The moment we disengage is the moment we become ineffective.
But this fact doesn’t mean everyone has to remain engaged at all times. Most of society would most likely rather engage in watching The Bachelor than watching another political argument from CNN or Fox News. Every time you turn around there is another conspiracy, another argument, or another political soap opera. You see the news updates on TV, you see the news updates as you shop in the grocery store, you get a presidential alert on your phone from the National Wireless Emergency Alert System, etc. You can’t get away!
If the news isn’t talking about politics, it is talking about tragedy
With the most recent happenings involving violence toward the severely mentally ill, police brutality, murder, passionate protests, community crimes, misunderstandings, miscommunication(s), inequality, racism, prejudice, discrimination, kidnappings, rapes, child luring incidents, etc., it is no wonder so many people feel depressed and possibly traumatized by the news. How can we not be emotionally and psychologically disturbed by the tragic deaths and murders that occurred in Dallas Texas, Baton Rouge, and all over the world? How can we not be negatively impacted by Christine Ford’s testimony and the uncanny reaction of the accused? It would be impossible, for those of us with a conscience, to ignore these things.
As a result, we suffer along with the victims who have been killed, mistreated, or unheard. We suffer along with their families. We question our nation’s morals, values, and ethics. We fear for our own families and friends. We desperately think of ways to protect those we love from a world gone mad. We ask God if He is there watching over the mass mess we are in. We waver in our faith and in our hope. We suffer from anxiety and uncertainty. All of this is a reality we cannot ignore.
Therefore, I engage many of my clients in exploring and identifying the ways our world news may have negatively impacted their thoughts and emotions. Some things I highlight includes:
- The daily, repeated showing of videos, audio clips, & pictures: When a shocking or traumatizing incident occurs you can count on most news stations, reporters, and outlets to provide instant video and audio clips, pictures from the scene, and/or “breaking new.” It can certainly feel as if you are trapped. Wherever you go, you are likely to hear about that news.
- What to do: Give yourself a break. Reading or viewing every report about a specific incident can take its toll. Give yourself a set amount of time for when you will engage and then disengage. For example, I try to give myself at least 20-30 minutes of exposing myself to daily news with the goal of remaining knowledgeable with limits.
- The prompting of constant discussion: Any time a traumatizing topic is being discussed multiple times following the event, trauma is likely to occur. One of the things that makes discussing trauma in therapy difficult is when an individual experiences physiological responses to the discussion itself. For example, the victims of James Holmes, the Colorado movie theater shooter, most likely had difficulty not only discussing the incident but also seeing and hearing multiple news reports which could result in increased blood pressure, feelings of nausea and dizziness, headaches, tensed muscles, increased heart rate, hyperventilating, etc.
- What to do: For individuals suffering from a traumatic experience it is important for them to be given time to grieve (i.e., cry, express anger, question things, suffer guilt, etc.). Everyone needs time to “rebound” and “gather themselves” before having to face the topic again. For many of my clients, I often use strategy during the beginning and end of therapy sessions (e.g., starting or ending the session with a game if working with a child or teen, or using humor if working with an adult). Families and caregivers can assist individuals who have been in traumatizing situations by getting them out of the house, encouraging them to eat and sleep, or helping with daily responsibilities.
- Triggering the “us” against “them” mentality: When a tragic event occurs in the world it is natural for victims and others who know about the event to point fingers. The first thing we want to know is “who did this atrocious thing?” The second thing we want to know is “why?” Once we summarize the tragedy, obtain information, and develop our perceptions and beliefs, we take a position or a side. When something terrible happens, especially at a mass level, opinions, feelings, and beliefs merge which can lead to a limited and biased view.
- What to do: Take some time away (if possible) and spend that time processing what happened or what you think happened. It is often a good idea to collect your feelings about the situation before commenting or “choosing a side” to be on. Without the influence of family, friends, caregivers, co-workers, etc., what do you really think? Why do you think that way? Is your judgment correct? Is it fair? What is the proof for your perspective? These existential-like questions can be helpful to you and others. It can also help with reducing unfair judgments and rage.
- Promoting seclusion, segregation, & anger: The news and social media outlets typically discuss things that trigger emotional response in all of us. Whether it is racism, prejudice, discrimination, segregation, hate, politics, or risque headlines, the goal is usually to trigger an emotional response. Sadly, some people fail to correctly integrate their consumption of emotional news with their values to avoid misinterpretation. In other words, some people hear or review reports from the media and immediately act on what they are feeling without thinking it through.
- What you should do: Ask yourself if your reactions to the news are influencing your behavior. If so, take a really good look at your values by writing down or calling to memory what values you hold and how to express those values to the world. Believe it or not, the entire world including various countries were affected by the violence, protests, and racial tension this month. Aim to be the solution not the problem.
- Denigrating everyone & worshiping the wrong people: News reports all over social media can make you feel trapped. It is not easy to get away from certain kinds of news, especially if the news is world-wide or traumatizing. The media and social media sites tend to “recycle” stories that draw mass attention, especially when the news story is “juicy” or “odd.” Stories of families who met diagnostic criteria for “shared psychotic disorder” made the news many times in the past and consumers picked sides, often “denigrating” the wrong people.
- What to do: It is important to question what you are consuming and determine if what you are consuming is ethical, moral, or appropriate. You also should question if you are consuming way too much news. Question if you truly want to think or behave like the masses. I encourage my clients to lose “fans” for the right cause.
- The constant exposure to opinions and not fact: For many of my adolescent clients social media is the only way they can stay up-to-date with news. It is also the only way they can instantly share news with their peers. Places like SnapChat, Twitter, Pinterest, FaceBook, MySpace, Instagram, and Tumblr permit brief sharing of news. Unfortunately, these interesting social media sites help in one way (by keeping us knowledgeable about what is happening in the world), and harm in another (repeatedly exposing us to news and multiple opinions where there is no “break” or “out”).
- What to do: If you are constantly plugged-in, I urge you to take a break from the news. If you are (much like me) drawn to the happenings of the world on a daily basis, be sure to engage in self-care and give yourself a few hours away. Too much of a good thing can harm you.
Let me be clear that none of the above is a call for your to stop informing yourself. But what I am calling you to do is learn to place limits on how much news you expose yourself to and avoid obsessing about it later. This may be difficult because watching the news may make you feel you have some “control” over your world. I get that completely! But I think it’s healthy to consider how much news we are consuming.
What has been your experience with news in the media and on social media?
As always, looking forward to your comments.
All the best
This article was originally published on 7/14/16 but has been updated to reflect comprehensiveness and accuracy.