Q. Can someone be traumatized over something horrible they’ve witnessed over the news?
A. Yes. It’s called “vicarious trauma.”
According to the US Veterans Administration, research generally finds an association between watching media coverage of traumatic events and stress symptoms. Furthermore, too much trauma-related television viewing may have a negative impact, especially on children. A more recent study by Dr. Pam Ramsden of the University of Bradford in the UK went even further make a connection between viewing of online videos and exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.
“Trauma responses are a result of the brain’s emergency response system getting stuck in the on position,” says Dr. Margo Jacquot, Founder and Director of The Juniper Center. “Graphic images of horrific events come to us across television and social media in real time,” says Jacquot. “Some people may experience vicarious trauma: they have not experienced the trauma first-hand, but may have witnessed a trauma in real-life, seen it in the media, or something may have happened to someone close to them.”
The symptoms of vicarious trauma may echo those of PTSD experienced by someone who has been a victim of trauma. These include things such as disruption in sleep, feeling angry, feeling startled or afraid, unease, anxiety or more.
“After a traumatic event, most people have painful memories,” says the US Veterans Administration. “For many people, the effects of the event fade over time. But for others, the memories, thoughts and feelings don’t go away – even months or years after the event is over.” According to statistics from PTSD United, 20% of adults in the United States who have experienced a traumatic event suffer from PTSD.
PTSD originally referred primarily to returning combat veterans who had witnessed catastrophic events. More recently studies have connected symptoms of PTSD to victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes, and to children living in neighborhoods with high community violence.
Media consumption can elicit or exacerbate feelings of PTSD. “It’s important to be attuned to your body and feelings,” says Dr. Jacquot. “Be aware of types of articles or videos that can trigger a response, and limit your consumption of that,” she adds.
“It’s not only okay but healthy to take a break. The bombardment of graphic images of disasters, terror attacks or events over which we have no control can impact our mental health,” says Dr. Jacquot. “Turning off or avoiding the images does not mean you don’t care or have empathy for victims. Finding organizations that are supporting victims on the ground may be a way to focus energy and show compassion while limiting media consumption.”
“People affected by traumatic events just want to feel better. Using state of the art treatments we help people sleep better, feel less angry, feel less startled or afraid, and overall have better, more satisfying lives. We work with you to help get your brain and body back in balance so that you can move on with your life.” Vicarious trauma is real and is on the rise as more and more graphic images of world events are more readily available across multiple media. And there is help.
June is PTSD Month, and June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day. The purpose of PTSD Awareness Month is to encourage everyone to raise public awareness of PTSD and effective treatments.