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Breaking news - psychological impact of 24/7 access to tragedy

When I was in college, I heard of someone who refused to watch the news because it was too negative. My young self who had an affinity for horror movies scoffed at what seemed like an exaggerated reaction to something as ordinary as "news."

Fast forward to today's news and media with 24/7 access through multiple means and most people with camera in hand, able to capture every sound, image, and story in real time. Gone are the days of being limited to "witness accounts" of events, or reading about current events the next day or later, as the immediate pictures and recordings tell it all: blasted with sound bites when we turn on the radio, faced with raw, graphic images and videos when we turn on the news, click on the internet, or scroll through Facebook.

"Breaking news" is no longer rare and unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to turn away from, at least completely. And while most of us need to know what's going on in the world around us, it's unfortunately impossible to limit the depths of information available at our fingertips.

I certainly appreciate the usefulness of 24/7 access to news, but I am also aware that this up front, raw, real-time access to the suffering, tragedies and injustices in our world can be emotionally harmful or worse, traumatizing when there is a near constant stream of it. Professionals such as first responders, doctors, nurses, mental health providers, victim service workers and law enforcement are familiar with the risk of experiencing vicarious trauma, or secondary trauma, in their work. Vicarious trauma is common in these professions, routinely coming into contact and developing helping relationships with those who are suffering.

However, vicarious trauma can effect anyone who is repeatedly being exposed to traumatic events, whatever the means: being bombarded with images of planes crashing into and toppling buildings; waking to news video of bombings; watching live coverage of young children and teachers escaping from their school and the faces of terrified parents awaiting their children, empty-handed; reading word-for-word a rape victim's emotional impact statement online, watching video of a child in the grips of a gorilla or worse, a deadly alligator; hearing the voices and frightened last words of those spending their last minutes in a terror and chaos-filled dance club. So many images, so many overwhelming feelings, but namely fear and helplessness, the very ingredients of trauma.

Preliminary research has documented the increased stress responses in virtually witnessing traumatic events and many people recognize it themselves: feeling extra fearful, anxious, mistrustful of others, having difficulty sleeping, being irritable, emotional, distracted or withdrawn.

So delete our social media accounts, give away our phones, TVs, and computers, right? No, but we need to be acutely aware of the information we ingest, paying attention to our exposure and how it impacts us. To take care of yourself while staying "current":

- Be purposeful with the amount of time and type of exposure to news stories and consider eliminating any news viewing before bed.

- Talk about your reactions to news stories with people you're close to.

- Remember that we hear about bad news more than good news, but it is not fully representative of what is happening in our town, country, world.

There is good news out there, but you may have to look for it. Websites such as these can help balance out your news intake:

Or request to join Facebook groups such as Good Matters or Good Vibes MOT, both started by local MOT residents, to guarantee some good stories in your news feeds.

Purposefully practice gratitude, taking time each day to recognize what you have to be grateful for in that moment.

Get involved in any activity that allows you to give to others- service projects, acts of kindness, volunteer work, sharing a talent you have, etc. You can BE THE GOOD.

Get professional support to process your experiences and feelings if you are overwhelmed or experiencing any of the impacts described earlier.

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