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Can Being Exposed to Disasters and Tragedies in the Media Cause Trauma?

Sometimes it seems like the national news contains one tragedy after another. National and world disasters wreak havoc on families and individuals, and these traumas often create ripple effects that impact people outside of the actual physical incident.

Is it possible to become traumatized from afar by watching or reading the news?


How Traumatic Events Impact the Brain

In psychological terms, trauma occurs when we feel that our lives may be in danger and have no control over that situation. It’s important to understand that we do not have to truly be in life-threatening danger in order to experience trauma — it’s simply enough that our brain believes we may be in grave danger.

The amygdala is located near the center of our brain, and this tiny area acts like a first responder to danger. It doesn’t readily recognize the difference between immediate physical danger and danger that may be miles away. The amygdala simply kicks the rest of the brain into gear, triggering a rise in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released after the amygdala is activated.

Woman watching disturbing TVEventually, the prefrontal cortex — the logic center of the brain — recognizes that something is amiss and responds in less than a second, though this process is slow in terms of brain-speed. Our brain then assigns a “story” to make sense of what is happening and assimilates the information. We may reassure ourselves that the danger is far away (if watching a terrible, but distant, hurricane or shooting on television news) or spring into action (if the danger is right in front of us).1

Adults generally have an ability to eventually logically understand distant dangers and other, very real dangers that cross our paths. However, our initial brain reaction occurs in the amygdala before we can fully decide how big the threat is. This is why disasters and traumas that occur far away can feel threatening to us, even when we’re sitting safely in our living rooms.

Is the News Stressing You Out?

Recent studies have shown that watching tragedies, conflicts and disasters on television does place us in a state of fear. Because part of our brain enters these incidents as potential threats, our brain goes into survival mode. When we’re in a state of worry, we become unable to process new information.

You may also be at a higher risk for stress and anxiety if you watch sensationalist news reports. For instance, one recent study by the American Psychological Association presented fifty participants with an imaginary scenario. Half of the group received news that was delivered calmly, and the other half of the group was offered a more sensational, highly affected presentation of the same information. Individuals who saw the highly sensational presentation were unable to process (think clearly about and remember) new information immediately after they watched the clip.

This indicates that the individuals who viewed the sensational news clip may have been experiencing stress and anxiety after watching the scripted segment. It does appear that news delivered in an alarming way will create a fear response, even if the viewers know the story is fake.2 In other words, our fear response is not always tied to logic, and our brains can quickly recognize danger, even if it does not pose an immediate threat.

Secondary Traumatic Stress

Many people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but not many are familiar with a similar condition known as secondary traumatic stress (STS). Also known as “compassion fatigue,” STS is common among trauma counselors and emergency first responders. However, it can happen to anyone who interacts with or views the trauma of others for long durations of time.

Secondary traumatic stress describes a set of symptoms that are similar to PTSD and occur in people who hear or see the trauma experiences of another person.3 Symptoms of secondary traumatic stress include:

  • Re-experiencing past personal trauma, even if it is unrelated
  • Repeated thinking about the traumas of other people
  • Nightmares about traumatic incidents, often accompanied by sleep disturbance
  • Increase in anxiety, sometimes feeling restless, frozen or angry
  • Hypervigilance or remaining on the lookout for more danger
  • Changes in perception or memory
  • Feelings of inadequacy or feeling unable to help
  • Exhaustion, weariness or depression
  • Disrupted sense of trust and safety

You Can Manage Secondary Traumatic Stress

Sometimes, secondary traumatic stress leads to memories of past trauma, PTSD or substance use relapses. STS is a prime example of a detrimental stressor that can impact every aspect of everyday life. There are ways to manage secondary traumatic stress. Consider the following:

  • Understand that fear is natural. It’s okay to feel afraid sometimes. It’s important to acknowledge that things can be uncertain and scary, and anxiety is one way our body tries to protect us from potential danger. Try to accept the feeling and understand, when it gets out of control, you may need treatment.
  • Accept that you can’t control the outcome. It’s tempting to try and gain a sense of control over traumatic incidents that often don’t make sense. However, we can’t control events like natural disasters, shootings or accidents.
  • Stay connected to others. It may be tempting to avoid other people when the world seems dangerous. However, your connection to others will give you strength and healing. Connection with other human beings is proven to decrease traumatic stress. Keep up your schedule, hobbies and interests.
  • Turn off the television. Take time off from the radio, the internet and all other forms of media. Ask a trusted friend or family member to let you know if there is news you shouldn’t miss.

While secondary traumatic stress can feel very disturbing, it shouldn’t take over your life. If STS, anxiety or worry threaten your well-being, your sobriety or your relationships, it may be time to consider supportive treatment. The experienced professionals at Michael’s House can help you and your family. Call today to learn more.

By: Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP


1 Tsilimparis, J. “Secondhand Trauma — Is It Real? The 2017 Hurricane Season Is Affecting Everyone.” PsychCentral, September 22, 2017.

2 van Osch, Mara, Milu Sep, et al. “Reducing patients’ anxiety and uncertainty, and improving recall in bad news consultations.” Health Psychology, November 2014.

3What Is Secondary Traumatic Stress?” National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Accessed October 20, 2017.