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Don’t re-post that! The dangers of seeing disturbing images over again

By Dr. P. Gould,

You see it: over and over and over again in your social media news feed and on TV. But do you realize just how that can affect your emotional state as well as someone else’s? From 24-hour cable news to YouTube and Twitter, today’s mass media can turn local disasters into international events within minutes, transmitting the impact of a disaster far beyond those who are directly exposed.

Indeed, while tens of thousands of people directly experienced the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, millions more viewed the attacks and their aftermath via the media, turning the attacks into what researchers call a collective trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder specialists say that even limited viewing of such menacing and heinous violence could be psychologically harmful.

Extensive exposure to 2014’s Boston Marathon bombing media coverage caused more acute stress in people watching on TV, online or listening to radio reports than in those experiencing the terrorist attack itself, researchers at UC Irvine have found.

Even the study authors who specialize in researching trauma impacts said they were startled by their findings: People engaged in six or more hours of bombing accounts — even without visuals –- were nine times more likely to report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the bombing victims.

  1. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine states “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.”

Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychology and social behavior, medicine and public health, said “we found that early and repeated exposure to violent images from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the Iraq War may have led to an increase in physical and psychological ailments up to three years later. Our new findings contribute to the growing body of research suggesting that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror.”

“We recommend people temper their exposure [to reports of] major community-based trauma events. Find out what you need to find out, but don’t oversaturate, don’t overdo it. Certainly don’t keep looking at pictures…. People need to learn to monitor that themselves. Second, media outlets need to understand that there may be impacts to the repetitive showing of gruesome impacts. We just don’t know what the impact is on the brain, how people process internally. What we do know is the more they watch, the more they see and hear, the more acute stress symptoms they have. We want to encourage caution in viewers and thoughtful display of images in the media.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the four types of PTSD symptoms are:

  1. Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms)

Memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place. For example:

You may have nightmares.

You may feel like you are going through the event again. This is called a flashback.

You may see, hear, or smell something that causes you to relive the event. This is called a trigger. News reports, seeing an accident, or hearing a car backfire are examples of triggers.

  1. Avoiding situations that remind you of the event

You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event. For example:

You may avoid crowds, because they feel dangerous.

You may avoid driving if you were in a car accident or if your military convoy was bombed.

If you were in an earthquake, you may avoid watching movies about earthquakes.

You may keep very busy or avoid seeking help because it keeps you from having to think or talk about the event.

  1. Negative changes in beliefs and feelings

The way you think about yourself and others changes because of the trauma. This symptom has many aspects, including the following:

You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships.

You may forget about parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them.

You may think the world is completely dangerous, and no one can be trusted.

  1. Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal)

You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. You might suddenly become angry or irritable. This is known as hyperarousal. For example:

You may have a hard time sleeping.

You may have trouble concentrating.

You may be startled by a loud noise or surprise.

You might want to have your back to a wall in a restaurant or waiting room.

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