Impact of Vicarious Exposure to Traumatic Events on Mental Health

Limit your Exposure: Traumatic Events in the News is Bad for your Mental Health

Have you ever stopped and thought about how often you expose yourself to traumatic images and stories? Most of us don’t even think about the exposure because it is so entrenched into our daily lives. The murder mysteries, violent action films that we love to enjoy on TV. It is impossible to turn on the news and not be bombarded with images of terrorism and violence. Well it turns out that this vicarious exposure to traumatic events may actually play an impact in your mental health.

Sure you have heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but there is a lesser known form of traumatization that is secondary. A study conducted in 2001 showed that stress levels in individuals who watched continuous coverage of traumatic terrorist events in the United States were significantly higher than individuals who did not spend as much time following the event. Exposure to too much of these traumatic events can greatly impact your mental health without you really even noticing!

Even if we try to enjoy more positive news and expose ourselves to more positivity, our brains tend to set us up for failure. Negativity Bias is a trait where our brains remember the negative or scary news stories better than we remember the positive ones. This effect is even stronger in children – see Vaish and colleagues for more information. Your brain is going to remember things that may be potential threats more than other information.

Unfortunately our constant exposure to these negative and traumatic stories can skew our overall perception of the world. For example, you may start to believe that the world is a dangerous place and begin to look for threats everywhere. And then, thanks to that lovely negativity bias, we begin to interpret neutral stimulus in our world as negative. For example, you may interpret someone offering to take a photo as a thief trying to steal your camera and not just a nice gesture. This way of seeing the world can increase your anxiety, depression and just impact your overall quality of life for the negative.

In children the traumatic exposures of the news can also lead to the development of depression or anxiety, as they don’t have the adult rationale to interpret the severity of threats. Separation anxiety may develop as children may fear something traumatic will happen while they are separated from their parents.

While it is important to stay educated about world events, it is equally important to be aware of what you are exposing yourself to. The same way you are aware of what you are eating, you can develop awareness to your media exposure to protect your mental health and overall wellbeing.

Here are some suggestions to protect your exposure to traumatic events:

  • Be intentional about getting your news. Decide how you are going to get your news, whether that be to read through the paper, use an app or watch the local morning news. Once you have caught up on the day’s events, avoid any extra exposure.
  • Don’t leave the television on that you are not watching. Even background trauma is exposure. This will also help limit your family and children’s unnecessary exposure
  • Turn off the news alerts on your phone.
  • Limit the number of violent movies and shows you watch
  • Have open discussion with children when traumatic events happen to address their concerns.

If you feel as though the trauma of recent events is impacting your mental health, contact your GP or local psychologist.

Related Reading:

Coping with Trauma: Grief, Loss and Tragic News and Events
The Warfare may be remote but the Trauma is Real
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others

Looking for support?