Are you feeling stressed? The emotional impact of following social media news of traumatic events

By  Dr Bikat Sahle

While social media publicity have been playing a crucial role in the effort to bring to light the human rights violations and abuse of migrant Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, the excessive exposure to the gruesome details of the situation on media can have a negative emotional impact on those following the news closely, both local Ethiopians as well as those in the diaspora.

When a large scale trauma like the current crisis in Saudi Arabia occurs, it is difficult for people to limit the amount of time they spend watching the news and media reports. Some may find it hard to resist seeing the perturbing images as they may feel that they owe the support to the threatened brothers and sisters that they closely follow the developments. While having access to news is a critical need in the aftermath of trauma, excessive exposure to the details of the trauma through media can also pose a risk.

Studies conducted after traumatic events in the US (World Trade Center, Oklahoma bombing), found an association between people who watched more media news of the traumatic events, and heightened stress, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was also found that children who watched more media coverage of traumatic events had higher trauma-related symptoms. This warrants that exposure to the details of traumatic events via media can have negative emotional consequences.

Vulnerable populations like children, those with family members currently at risk, those with personal trauma history, and the public should be advised to be cautious of the risk of excessive exposure to the details and images of the horrific acts.

Children: Parents and the community at large should be aware that exposing children to the terrifying news and graphic images of the crisis can create emotional distress. Adults should be very cautious not to have conversations about the event in the presence of children or let them watch the news of the incident. If you see that your child is already having anxiety, stress, and sleep problems, it is good to talk to them about it and allow them to express their feelings, as well as reassuring them that they are safe with you. If the problem persists, you may seek professional help for them.

Adults who may be high risk for developing stress reactions to the news and distressing images are individuals who have family members and friends in the Saudi Arabia cities where there are serious threats on Ethiopian migrants. If you are one of those people who have a loved one in the heat of the crisis, you will have to have strategies to cope with the emotional distress as recommended below.

Individuals who previously encountered difficult circumstances such as witnessing violence, death of a loved one, accidents, traumatic child birth, physical or sexual abuse as a child or adult, witnessing another’s death from traumatic illness, you are more likely to be re-traumatized by the news and may experience a new sets of symptoms.

In addition, if you have been closely watching social media and the images of the torture, blood, and dead bodies posted online, you should examine yourself to determine how stressed and anxious you are since you learned about the situation. If you see that you are being more and more stressed about the event, having sleep difficulties and depression, you probably need some strategies as well.

Ways to cope to prevent the stress from watching the news and graphic images

(1) You can ask other people to summarize the news stories for you and tell you about it rather than you seeing the images.

(2) You can limit the amount of time you spend watching the news or talking about it with others, such as 30 minutes in the morning and evening. You can read other unrelated topics the rest of the day.

(3) You can focus your energy on planning or other activities on how you can help your loved ones upon their return rather than ruminating on the news excessively.

(4) You can develop coping skills for stress management by practicing distraction, going out to public areas, malls or coffee shops with friends, journaling your feelings, doing relaxation techniques such as walking or exercising, doing prayer and meditation, going to your church or religion’s worship houses, praying with others and holding vigils, etc.

(5) If you are experiencing sleep problems, severe stress, and depression, you are advised to also seek professional help from your physician who can treat you with anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications. Remember that the stress reaction you are having is a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation and you don’t have to feel ashamed for seeking help from a professional.

In conclusion even though it is difficult to resist watching the news closely when a serious trauma breaks out, it is also important to be self-reflective and evaluate how you are being impacted by what is happening. You may have to limit your exposure to the details of the traumatic news so to preserve yourself.

References :

Ahern, J., Galea, S., Resnick, H., Kilpatrick, D., Bucuvalas, M., Gold, J., & Vlahov, D. (2002). Television images and psychological symptoms after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Psychiatry, 65, 289-300.

Pfefferbaum, B., Moore, V., McDonald, N., Maynard, B., Gurwitch, R., & Nixon, S. (1999). The role of exposure in posttraumatic stress in youths following the 1995 bombing. Journal of the State Medical Association, 92, 164-167

Schuster, M.A., Stein, B.D., Jaycox, L.H., Collins, R.L., Marshall, G.N., Elliott, M.N., et al. (2001). A National Survey of stress reactions after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. New England Journal Medicine, 345, 1507-1512.

About Tenayistilign

I am a physician trained at Jimma Institute of Health Sciences ( now Jimma University, in Jimma, Ethiopia) and Wayne State University ( Detroit, MI, USA). I teach and practice General Nephrology/Hypertension and Kidney Transplantation in the USA.
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