This is Your Brain Under Constant Trauma
We're drowning in a cascade of collective traumas—gun violence, racial injustice, climate catastrophe, an ongoing pandemic—and the stress is altering the human brain.
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On 9/11, E. Alison Holman was in Nigeria. She didn’t learn about the terrorist attack until she saw it on television at a home she was visiting. Holman was horrified by what she saw and asked her host what Hollywood was up to now. “That is not Hollywood,” he replied. “That is real. That just happened today.”
Holman was shocked. “I couldn’t sleep for days,” she recalls. “I started worrying about my kids. And I became very interested in understanding the impact of showing these types of images on major media.”
When Holman was a pediatric ICU nurse, she was keen to understand how to help people deal with trauma. The repeated broadcasting of the events of 9/11 triggered a new curiosity: What does exposure to scenes of pain and violence do to us? In the case of this 2001 terrorist attack, she helped discover that 17 percent of the United States population outside of New York City reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress two months after the attack, and 5.8 percent still felt this way four months later. People didn’t need to be at the site of trauma to feel its psychological effects.
Today, Holman is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and continues to study how media-based exposure to collective trauma influences mental and physical health. Her work suggests that frequently consuming news related to this type of trauma can result in intense worry, a fear of the future, and post-traumatic stress symptoms—especially if graphic images are involved. This can fuel a cycle of distress: Repeated exposure to trauma-related media is linked to a greater likelihood of consuming the media that emerges from the next traumatic event.
Her work is relevant for this moment, which she and colleagues describe as a time of cascading collective traumas, in which a “perfect storm of stressors” is forcing many to grapple with a new horrible event before they’ve processed and recovered from the previous one. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone: In the United States, the demand for mental health treatments is increasing. Only 16 percent of U.S. adults are “satisfied” with the way things are going in the country, according to a May 2022 Gallup poll.
Our screens display a steady flow of escalating and ongoing disasters, and it’s possible that this exposure to collective traumas can explain why so many feel their mental health has suffered. Immediate solutions are few, beyond what you can do as an individual. Experts tell DAME that consuming the news must be a deliberate process, in which you manage staying informed without becoming emotionally impaired. No change can happen if these traumas appear insurmountable.
Collective trauma is a psychological reaction to a traumatic event shared by many people—at times, even an entire society. War and natural disasters are collective traumas. Fear of police violence is a form of collective trauma felt by Black Americans, Holman explains. The Covid-19 pandemic, she and others argue, is also a collective trauma—though some experts argue it is more of a “collective stressor.” (In 2021, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, told The Atlantic the pandemic is “absolutely not” a collective trauma. He later explained to NPR that his hesitation was due to a fear that if we give what’s happening the wrong name, “we may give the wrong treatment.”)
This disagreement hints at other nuanced realities. Holman’s work demonstrates that media exposure to collective trauma can result in post-traumatic stress symptoms—not the disorder. Some people experience these symptoms more than others. Meanwhile, media exposure is technically not a qualifying event for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to an American Psychiatric Association decision reflected in the DSM-5.
“Technically speaking, you cannot get PTSD from watching television or watching images,” Holman says. “But I would argue that there are some people who are profoundly affected by it. We’ve documented it across multiple studies.”
Researchers are also still in the early stages of understanding how the news cycle affects our emotional state. Natascha de Hoog, an assistant professor of psychology at The Open University of the Netherlands, says that this type of research wasn’t popular until Covid-19—most earlier studies on the news focused on information process and memory. Her research suggests that while not everyone feels bad after consuming negative news, on average, most do.
We don’t even fully know what the internet is doing to our emotional state. A 2019 study published in World Psychiatry describes the internet as a “mass-scale experiment” with unknown long-term effects. “The unprecedented potential of the internet to capture our attention,” its authors write, “presents an urgent need for understanding the impact that this may have on our thought processes and well-being.” Advances in technology, the rise of social media, and competition among media sources mean we are constantly encountering tragedy.
But something is obviously happening to many of us. Alyssa Mancao, a therapist, says her clients often discuss social and systemic issues in their therapy sessions.
“Especially after a mass trauma, it is common for clients to express an increase in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and helplessness,” Mancao says. “Clients also commonly express frustrations around wanting to make a difference, not knowing where to begin, and frustration around navigating conversations with peers who share different beliefs about what is happening in the world. They express that it seems as though they are grieving a new tragedy while still grieving the previous tragedies.”
We do know that the brain is a “threat detector,” explains Marie-France Marin, an associate professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. Negative news can, in turn, be processed by the brain as a threat. Her research suggests that women, compared to men, express higher stress levels when they are exposed to a stressor after they read negative news.
When the brain perceives a threat, it initiates a stress response which causes the release of two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Meanwhile, Marin explains, brains react to absolute and relative stressors. Absolute stressors are situations in which physical health is threatened, like an earthquake. Relative stressors are relative “because they depend on the interpretation that we make of the situation,” she explains. For example, a threat to one’s ego or a lowered sense of control could be considered relative stressors. The brain activates the same stress response facing an absolute or a relative stressor.
“Of course, relative stressors bring a notion of individual differences because what is stressful for someone might be stressful for someone else,” Marin says.
De Hoog’s research suggests that when people feel the news is personally relevant—they believe it could happen to them, or it simply matters to them—they feel much worse than when there’s no connection. Approximately 33 percent of Americans report that their fear of a mass shooting prevents them from going to certain places or events and 79 percent of Americans report they feel stressed about the possibility. When yet another shooting is reported, the people who fear they will be next are especially affected.
This finding is also consistent in health communication research; de Hoog explains, “It does not matter how negative something is, as long as you do not feel it will affect you personally, you are not very likely to care.”
Generally, studies on how we are affected by media coverage suggest bad news can increase depressive symptoms, cause feelings of anxiety, and make us feel more threatened by others. For example, a 2021 study found that it takes less than two minutes of exposure to negative Covid-19 news to have negative emotional consequences.
While a massive fire in Arizona or the attack on the U.S Capitol might be technically far from where you are, research suggests this distance doesn’t mean you won’t be emotionally affected. In a study on the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, Holman and colleagues found that people exposed to media about the event for six or more hours in the week following the attack reported higher levels of PTSD symptoms than those who were at the bombing itself. “It was a shocking result,” she says. “It was a real ‘wow’ moment.”
And in this time of cascading traumas, it’s possible that being absorbed by one—the endless scrolling, the repeated phone checks—will mean you’ll repeat a pattern of mass consumption when another trauma emerges. A subsequent longitudinal study of Holman’s found that frequent consumption of media about the bombing, which was often graphic, also led to a greater fear about the future. This prompted increased media consumption in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, which in turn, caused further feelings of stress.
“We see that it can become this negative cycle, where a person’s mental health is being challenged,” Holman says. “The media becomes a conduit through which people who aren’t physically proximate to the event can become emotionally proximate to the event.”
She also acknowledges that there are times in which viewing traumatic imagery is crucial to initiate a social reckoning, such as videos of police brutality. What’s important, Holman explains, is that people “moderate their own exposure to media.” This means getting your news from a few reputable sources and not scrolling through social media where you have no control over what headline or video you see. Consuming media, she says, should be a deliberate process.
Melanie Badali, a psychologist, says clients increasingly report their mental health is worsening because they’re encountering negative news. She helps them process by aiding them in identifying and naming the feelings associated with this situation, identifying the thoughts driving the feelings, and evaluating whether these thoughts are realistic or overly negative.
If overly negative, she directs them toward strategies that are a part of cognitive-behavioral therapy. If realistic, several actions can help, including disabling news alerts on your phone and evaluating your mood before and after consuming the news. “Give yourself compassion and credit for doing the best you can to cope,” Badali says. “Turn your compassion or negative emotions related to news into an action tied to your values.” This could look like volunteering with an organization dedicated to combating climate change, or joining a gun reform protest.
Crystle Lampitt, a therapist, says she often talks to her clients about boundaries when they discuss the news. Put into action, this could look like allowing yourself just one hour a day to catch up on events.
“You can think of boundaries like a fence: they’re designed to keep so-called good things in and bad things out,” Lampitt says. “Boundaries protect you and allow you to continue functioning and living your life. They are not impenetrable brick walls that cause you to become isolated or ignorant. When established properly, boundaries help us remain engaged and connected to ourselves and our words.”
This tension — between knowing how bad things really are and not — can deceptively present itself as a zero-sum game. Information can make you feel awful, but isn’t it better to be informed?
The reality is that you can be informed but take steps to keep yourself from being consumed. What is less certain, Holman says, is whether or not viewing graphic imagery is potentially a necessary evil. In the aftermath of the Uvalde school massacre, a debate has emerged, with some arguing seeing victims of gun violence could finally cause gun reform.
For now, Holman thinks seeing these images would be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back—and not in a good way.” There’s a chance that seeing these images would be so shattering that they would cause emotional paralysis.
“We still need more research to really understand what that type of exposure to horror and carnage might do to the population as a whole,” Holman says. “We need to face this, but how? That is a question that needs to be carefully thought out.”
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