The Traumatizing Effects of the Media

When you have committed yourself to healing from trauma, PTSD, or are trying to improve your nervous system’s resiliency, you’re going to have to get smart about what you allow your mind and body to be exposed to.

It’s possible to live in state of being unaware of the effects your environment have on your body. If you have a history of trauma, especially early childhood relational trauma, where your nervous system has a stronger freeze response, you may not be aware of your body well enough to detect the changes that occur in response to things in your environment.

Media including T.V. shows, news, and movies have a strong impact on our body, because of the combination of music, images, and meanings associated with what is being said.

If you are ready to heal and improve your nervous system, physical, and mental health then it is vital that you understand what impact the media has on your body, so that you can make informed decisions on your own health and healing.

Does Media Really Affect Us?

First, let’s look at a few studies to get a baseline understanding of what effect the media can have on those who have histories of trauma.  

Just this year, an article was published in a psychiatry journal discussing how the amount of time that a person exposes themselves to media increases their psychological distress after a terrorist attack. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the article explained how not only did more media time lead to more psychological distress, but also symptoms of PTSD and an increase in physical symptoms called somatization (Monfort, 2017).  

Monfort reveals changes in both emotional states and how people reported their brain working depending on how much media they watched or participated in following a violent terrorist attack.

There are also studies looking at the effects on children of watching images of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on the news. The children developed PTSD symptoms from watching the images on T.V., and these symptoms were correlated with how much television viewing time they had. Just watching the images on the T.V. affects the brain, nervous system, and body!

The news media reports possible upcoming threats including natural disasters and even possible threats. Another study this year by Hopwood showed what’s being called an Anticipatory Traumatic Reaction.  

It’s common to start to feel overwhelmed by all that we’re taking in from our environment, especially when it’s on a big screen, we’re watching people’s gut-wrenching reactions to their loved ones dying, or watching people actively get hurt or killed.  

This much exposure to violence, pain, and threat is happening too fast and becoming too much for our systems to process. When things are too much or too fast for our systems to cope with, it shuts down.

You will know your system has shut down when you see yourself as being more anxious, defensive, irritable or isolating, experiencing an increase in any of your own PTSD symptoms, or have an increase in physical symptoms or sickness.

You may also experience your system shutting down when you seem to become numb to it all. You may sit and watch the reruns over and over again, or begin watching more violent or negative media exposure and not feel much toward it. This is a form of disconnection and dissociation from our bodies and emotions that happens when our nervous system is overloaded and has gone into a form of freeze state.

Especially as you start to heal your nervous system, any type of exposure that creates the feeling of too much too fast can set you back in your healing, because it reinforces the survival response, and more specifically it will reinforce the freeze survival response that we are working to change.  

The Nervous System Is More Sensitive As It Heals

As a person begins to heal from trauma, their nervous system begins to become unstuck.

During this period of time, the nervous system is rewiring and developing in ways that it failed to do before, when it didn’t have the right environment to develop in a healthy and balanced way.  

During this healing period, the nervous system is more sensitive.  

Many people don’t like the connotation of “sensitive,” as it suggests weakness. While a sensitive nervous system could be described as a weak rather than resilient nervous system, let’s talk about it in terms of reactivity.

A sensitive nervous system is a reactive one. This means that it is quicker to respond to things and it responds in a way that overdoes it. There is no shame in this; this is a necessary stage to healing the nervous system.

When a nervous system is more sensitive and reactive, it’s more aware of other people’s pain and feelings. A nervous system that is first beginning to heal and recover from a lifelong state of being in survival mode lacks the boundaries and resilience to know what is other people’s pain and what is their own.  

To a nervous system just starting to heal, other people’s pain feels like our own. When there is too much pain and too fast, in order to protect itself, it will send your nervous system back into hiding. Therefore, derailing the healing process, and reinforces that strong survival response to shut down emotionally and disconnect from ourselves and others.

A nervous system that continues to be exposed to images and stories that cause too much pain too fast for their system to handle in a balanced and healthy way, will delay and prevent it from healing and building the resilience to be less reactive.

We go into our survival and defensive coping strategies, which are usually behaviors that cause problems for us later. We may or may not be able to relate it directly to the media that we’ve been exposed to lately. However, media affects our thinking and behaviors directly and indirectly!

Because of this, while a nervous system is in the more reactive phase, it needs to be protected more in order for it to heal and not just be retraumatized.  

 

Protecting Your Nervous System: Choosing the Right Environment

Parents protect their children by limiting them to situations and environments that they can handle well given their stage of development. For example, you wouldn’t put a baby in an environment where they had to walk. Their nerves and muscles haven’t developed enough for that yet; therefore, that expectation would be too much too fast for their young system.  

Healing the nervous system is similar to parenting: you’re going to create the right environment for what their minds and bodies need to develop and grow up healthy. This means knowing what window of tolerance your nervous system has, and creating limits to what you expose yourself to in order to stay within that window of tolerance.  

Let’s talk about how to do good by your nervous system and protect its healthy development out of chronic fear and survival and into connection and resilience.

 

Media

The news reports and T.V. shows are designed to be dramatic to catch and keep your attention.  

They want you to get caught up in the story and in the images; they are taught how to use emotional impact to keep you watching.  

Their stories, even if it’s a news report, are emotionally charging. For a healing nervous system, this is danger zone, because it doesn’t have the healthy regulation yet to handle the full intensity of the emotional charge in such a short amount of time.  

Even news, shows, or movies that are intended to create positive emotional impact can be triggering from someone initially recovering from trauma.  

The degree of emotional impact is the problem when someone is initially starting to heal their nervous system, because it gets triggered into feeling out of control by high emotional states, even positive ones.  

Once I starting to notice how much, even just watching the news, affects my nervous system and body, I have walked away from news and other media reports. And I haven’t been sorry!

If I watch a news clip about something, I watch it on my laptop (smaller screen so less threatening than a big screen TV), and I only watch it once. I may even just listen to the news report rather than watching the images.  

I really encourage you to try stepping away from TV and media for a time to see what difference it makes. If it doesn’t make any difference – you can go back to it!  

I would expect you to experience some degree of withdrawals from TV, which is normal and just takes a little time to get through the change in brain chemicals. Cravings and withdrawals for TV, news, and movies doesn’t mean that you should immediately go back to it! To really know if it’s affecting you, you’ll need to stop watching it for at least one month. When you do go back it should be in small and short doses.

Especially if you have young children in the home, you want to be really careful with media, stories, and images. Their young nervous systems cannot handle things as well as adults, and having a healthy environment for their nervous system is essential for them have healthy emotional resilience.  

I am reminded of a study in 2013 done by Dr. Feinstein in Toronto, CA. He showed how journalists who are exposed to stories, images, and footage of violence and found this environment to be emotionally distressing as evidenced by how it affected their life outside of work. In fact, journalists who were regularly exposed to violent video footage scored higher on PTSD assessments, even though they themselves had never experienced or even witnessed the stories or violence first hand. These journalists showed higher rates of avoidance, general anxiety, and coping mechanisms for emotional distress including alcohol consumption, physical symptoms (somatization), and depression.  

If you have PTSD or are parenting a child with Attachment Disorder or have a history of childhood trauma, cutting out TV and news is an absolute requirement for a period of time. With the amount of reactivity the nervous system has in these situations, there’s no way that healing can occur while continuing to be exposed to images of sad or violent stories. These images and stories will resonate with you on a gut level and you might not be able to shake it. It’ll come out in your behaviors, in your physical symptoms, and in your sleep. It just isn’t worth it.

Summary

Healing from trauma takes time and work, and creating an environment in which the nervous system can heal is essential.  

After all, we wouldn’t expect a tree to grow well if we intermittently kept exposing it to bugs and drought.  

If we want our nervous systems to heal and become healthy, stable and resilient, we need to limit our exposure to things that negatively impact or is too emotionally charged for what it can handle.

Media images and stories do impact our bodies and our nervous system. Whether stories of car chases, murder cases, or news reports of natural disasters or attacks, the media restores a sense of threat and will overwhelm a young and sensitive nervous system just starting to come out of its shell.  

Be very gentle with your nervous system as it heals, and it will build more resilient with the time and work you put into it!

What effects have you noticed that media plays on you or your child’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors?  

I would love to hear your personal experience with media and trauma!

 

To Health and Healing,

 

Dr. Aimie

 

 

 

 

References:

Feinstein A., Aduet B., Waknine E., Witnessing Images of Extreme Violence: A Psychological Study of Journalists in the Newsroom. 2013. J of Royal Society of Medicine; 5(8): 1-7.

Hopwood TL, Shuttle NS, Loi NM.  Anticipatory Traumatic Reaction: Outcomes Arising From Secondary Exposure to Disasters and Large-Scale Threats.  Assessment.  Sept 2017: doi: 10.1177/1073191117731815

Monfort E., Afzali MH.  Traumatic Stress Symptoms After the November 13th 2015 Terrorist Attacks Among Young Adults: The Relation to Media and Emotion Regulation.  Compr. Psychiatry.  May 2017; 75: 68-74.

Otto MW, Henin A, Hirshfeld-Becker DR, Pollack MH, Biederman J, Rosenbaum JF.  Post traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Following Media Exposure to Tragic Events: Impact of 9/11 on Children at Risk for Anxiety Disorders.  J Anxiety Discord.  2007;21(7): 888-902.

 

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