Like other similar tragedies, the string of terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22 not only claimed lives and caused injuries, but also provoked traumatic stress for those who learned about them from media reports.
Joan Cook, a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University, wrote an article about how terrorist attacks could harm people’s emotional health and who is exposed the most to news about such events.
When news on tragic events like terrorist attacks comes it provokes anxiety. It is not unusual for people to be anxious about what could happen to them in public places. Terrorists could attack anywhere – and this makes anxiety increase.
“Nevertheless, not everyone realizes that a sad event could also cause a traumatic experience for those who learned about it secondhand from media reports. Every one of us could potentially be exposed to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
According to psychiatrists, a trauma is described as direct exposure to actual or threatened death or serious injury to one’s self or to a loved one. It can also include indirect exposure, learning about the death or injuries of another person. Specialists say that people cannot avoid empathy for other person’s feelings. This is the reason why causing death or injuries to someone is also traumatogenic experience.
The current state of online media including social networks creates the possibility for a person to watch a tragic event unfolding live in all details, just as if they were directly involved. First of all, pictures and videos taken by eyewitnesses are published, and then come professional reports and official statements. Finally, media publishes personal stories and interviews with the relatives of those affected by the tragedy. These stories are expected to help the audience feel more compassion for the victims. However, these reports could be traumatizing for a lot of people. According to Cook, up to 50 percent of individuals in the US experience exposure to potentially traumatic events. If a person feels too impacted by a tragic event he or she is often described as hyperemotional. However, according to the professor, some people just feel more emotionally impacted than others, so “we should not judge ourselves or others for how we respond to events in the news.”
“Just as someone may have a susceptibility to physical health problems (cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure), some of us are more vulnerable to mental health difficulties like post-traumatic stress disorder,” she wrote.
Other pre-trauma factors that increase the risk for PTSD include being female, having lower cognitive functioning, having a negative outlook on life, having a family history of mental health problems and prior traumatic exposure.
Another important factor is a lack of social support after traumatic exposure, the article read. The psychologist underscored that there is a difference in intensiveness of posttraumatic stress between a combat veteran and a person watching news on TV. However, the fact is that both situations are equally traumatogenic.
“In times of difficult life experiences, Cook noted, it is important to maintain an active lifestyle and take care of oneself, including having adequate sleep, pleasurable activities, and communicating with supportive people.