Watching coverage of traumatic events may cause more stress than being there

A man is loaded into an ambulance after he was injured by one of two bombs that exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon near Copley Square April 15, 2013, in Boston.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Watching television coverage of traumatic events, like the Boston Marathon bombing, for prolonged periods of time may be detrimental to your mental health.

UC Irvine researchers found that people who watched six or more hours a day of media coverage of the Boston Marathon the week following the incident were more likely to have higher levels of acute stress than those who had been at or near the event.

"We were very surprised at the degree to which repeated media exposure was so strongly associated with acute stress symptoms," lead author E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine, said in a press release. "We suspect that there's something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds that keeps traumatic events alive and can prolong the stress response in vulnerable people. There is mounting evidence that live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and encourage fear conditioning. If repeatedly viewing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and promotes rumination, there could be serious health consequences."

 The researchers surveyed 4,675 adults two to four weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, which left three people dead and more than 260 people injured. They were asked about how much acute stress they had experienced because of the bombings, how close they were to the actual bombings, how much media coverage they watched and if they had experienced any other community-based trauma. Acute stress involved unwelcome thoughts, jumpy feelings, being overly anxious about situations, avoiding situations that resemble the event and feeling detached from the event.  

Those who watched six or more hours a day of bombing-related media coverage were nine times more likely to report high acute stress than those with the lowest levels of media exposure, which was about one hour a day.

 "When you repeatedly see images of a person with gruesome injuries after an event is over, it's like the event continues and has its own presence in your life," Holman said. "Prolonged media exposure can turn what was an acute experience into a chronic form of stress. People may not realize how stressful these media-based exposures are. Looking at these images over and over again is not productive and may be harmful."

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, told AFP that the research is important for media organizations to take note of, and this phenomenon -- which is known as “vicarious traumatization” -- has previously been seen in other studies.

Experts have also noted that children may be more vulnerable to anxiety attacks right after watching traumatic coverage of events like the Boston Marathon. Such an event may also trigger post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is categorized by prolonged mental health issues at least 30 days after an event.

 PTSD sufferers may experience flashbacks, bad dreams and frightening thoughts. They may try to avoid places, events or objects that remind them of the experience, feel numb or guilty, lose of interest in activities, forget details about the about the event, be easily startled, feel tense and have difficulty sleeping.

Another study found that coverage on national disasters like superstorm Sandy can also cause anxiety in young children, and kids who have anxiety may be more likely to develop PSTD just by watching more disaster coverage.

But, Shapiro cautioned people to not jump to the conclusion that just watching traumatic events on the news on online would lead to PTSD.

"It will take further study before we know if people's rise in acute stress symptoms turns into or feeds long-term psychological injury," Shapiro told AFP. "It doesn't become PTSD until the characteristic problems go on for more than six weeks and interfere in some significant way with people's lives."

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Dec. 9.