Another day, another explosion.
It seems like the news is full of them recently.
This time, it's the Manhattan bombing and the pipe bomb in New Jersey. Yesterday, it was a North Korean nuke. And in the days before that, it was explosions of a different kind; the kinds that erupt out of police weapons into the unarmed bodies of Philandro Castille and Alton Sterling and Michael Brown.
Is it just us, or at this point, have we've become sensitized to violence? It's a weird feeling; all this death and terror feels sickeningly normal, yet we can't wrench our eyes away. We fixate on the screen, the explosions and gunshots playing over and over before us.
There's an even sicker irony here: that sometimes, watching negative news events on TV is actually more damaging to you than experiencing it firsthand, in person.
One UC Irvine study found that some people who repeatedly watch footage of deadly events — in this case, the Boston Marathon bombings — developed more mental trauma and stress than people who had actually witnessed the events in real life. With every hour of violent media exposure on TV, social media, videos, print or radio, participants' acute stress symptoms increased.
Think about that for a second; some people who were there for the explosions and the flying limbs and the death are better off psychologically than people who simply fixated on it in the news. That finding could have huge implications for the so-called culture of fear we live in; people are more scared of scary things happening than actual the scary things themselves. That's the exact reaction that people looking to control the populace, such as terrorist groups or politicians, wish to exact on a society.
But, the effect of this becomes more acute and present when it comes to you and your mental health.
“We were very surprised that repeated media exposure was so strongly associated with acute stress symptoms,” said the study's lead author E. Alison Holman. “We suspect that there’s something about repeated exposure to violent images or sounds that keeps traumatic events alive and can prolong the stress response in vulnerable people. There is mounting evidence that live and video images of traumatic events can trigger flashbacks and encourage fear conditioning. If repeatedly viewing traumatic images reactivates fear or threat responses in the brain and promotes rumination, there could be serious health consequences.”
Other studies have observed similar results.
Another, from the University of Bradford, had participants watch footage from school shootings, suicide bombings, and the attacks on 9/11. It found that 22 percent of them showed symptoms of PTSD after watching the videos.
And in the weeks after 9/11, Americans watched an average of eight hours of news coverage each of the attacks, much of which was explicit — you could literally see thousands of people dying as the towers crumbled, and if couldn't see it, you definitely knew it was happening. Those who watched the most TV news coverage had heightened stress responses and symptoms of emotional trauma.
"After watching such content, [people] may have problems sleeping and even a level of anxiety — almost mimicking paranoia — that they can also be the victim of such a violent act," Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist with an expertise in PTSD and trauma from mass media told VICE.
And yet, as Metzger pointed out, people can't stop themselves from watching. After all, violent imagery can be addictive, because it gets at what makes us animal. Seeing death and threats to our existence activates our mid-brain's fight or flight response, a neural reacton that thousands of years of evolution has trained us to fixate on in order to survive.
If you're like us and have ever found yourself sucked into a plane crash YouTube k-hole, you'll know exactly what that means.
"I believe there's a certain shock value to these videos that make them appealing to the masses," Metzger said.
All this constitutes the biggest Catch-22 ever. We need to absorb the news to know what's going on and keep ourselves safe, but when we do, it hurts us.
So, what can we do?
According to the researchers behind the Boston Marathon study, the best way to hand this is to just step away from the television, computer screen or smartphone in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, mass shootings or murder. This is especially true if you have a preexisting mental condition like depression or anxiety that would make you more susceptible to the stress of seeing such events unfold.
Of course, stepping away is easier said than done. In our information-rich society, news permeates almost all levels of social media, journalism and general internet existence. Negative news, especially. You truly cannot hide from things that make you feel terrible — it seems like even if you're off the grid, a migrating flock of vultures will pass over your solar-powered tiny home and drop off some shredded newspaper with the front page headline "Everyone dies."
The only real, actionable solution is this: when you're faced with grisly images and videos, be it via of your own volition or accidentally, just know that succumbing to the temptation to watch them can severely fuck you up.
This doesn't mean you should ignore the news — it's important to stay informed even when what's being reported is terrifying and apocalyptic. And, we need negative news to create change. If we don't hear about things like police brutality, domestic terrorism and school shootings, we can't get educated or pissed enough to change anything. We need to know the scope and frequency of certain events to get impassioned about issues that affect us all.
It just means that when you make the decision to partake in the news cycle, consider the impact of doing so on your heath. It's a balance — there's a difference between knowing what's going on and obsessively fixating on it.