Regardless of how sad, gruesome or graphic news coverage of an event might be, some just can’t seem to turn away.

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, some people may watch television coverage of a traumatic event for hours because they want to be informed or, in the event of a disaster, prepared. Others may watch to understand and process an event.

According to Laura Drury, MSW, LICSW, director of Social Services at Butler Hospital, research shows an association between watching media coverage of traumatic events and increased symptoms of stress. She says, “The amount of media we are exposed to is something that is within our control, and the best strategy to minimize the impact on us is to limit the number of hours we watch or to simply turn off the TV.”

Tips to minimize media-related stress

  • Talk to friends, family and people you trust as a means of gathering information and processing your feelings. These can be good alternatives to direct exposure to traumatic news.
  • Limit exposure especially prior to bedtime so that your sleep is not negatively affected.
  • Read newspaper or journal articles with fewer graphic images than TV.
  • If you want to improve your overall well-being, use the time you used to spend watching TV news programs for other activities that make you feel good, like exercising, meditating, spending time with family or friends, etc.

Drury believes watching coverage of traumatic events can be OK, but hours of graphic coverage can result in someone experiencing increased anxiety or fear. They may become upset and/or have physical symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, or crying spells. “If you are having nightmares, don’t watch TV before going to bed,” she says.
Negative effects of watching excessive TV coverage of traumatic events include becoming desensitized to violence, experiencing fatigue, having a heightened startle response, feeling irritable and agitated, or having anxiety and fear.

If you are concerned about how watching too much television is affecting your emotional health, take a free confidential  online mental health screening.

Stronger than you think

Brandon Gaudiano, PhD, of Butler Hospital, shares insightful research on how people handle media exposure to traumatic events from an article called the “Neuroscience of True Grit,” published in the Scientific American. It states, “When the worst happens—a death in the family, a terrorist attack, an epidemic of virulent disease, paralyzing fear in the mist of battle—we experience a sense of profound shock and disorientation. Yet, neuroscientist and psychologists who look back at the consequences of these horrific events have learned something surprising: Most victims of tragedy soon begin to recover and ultimately emerge largely emotionally intact. Most of us demonstrate astonishing natural resilience to the worst that life throws our way.”

When is enough enough?

Drury believes watching coverage of traumatic events can be OK, but hours of graphic coverage can result in someone experiencing increased anxiety or fear. They may become upset and/or have physical symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, or crying spells. “If you are having nightmares, don’t watch TV before going to bed,” she says.

Negative effects of watching excessive TV coverage of traumatic events include becoming desensitized to violence, experiencing fatigue, having a heightened startle response, feeling irritable and agitated, or having anxiety and fear.

If you are concerned about how watching too much television is affecting your emotional health, take a free confidential online mental health screening.

Counseling children

Be careful what your children watch, too. Young children should not be exposed to graphic depiction of catastrophic events on TV. Be mindful that while you are monitoring your children’s TV exposure, they may be hearing graphic stories and details from their friends. “If children appear upset, anxious, withdrawn, or quiet, talk to them in an age-appropriate way about what’s happened and answer their questions,” Drury suggests. “Reassure young children of their own safety.”

Drury also advises limiting TV coverage for adolescents. “Talk about what’s happened,” she says. “Ask how they feel and what they think about a traumatic event. Explain that while TV and media are useful in reporting what’s happened, it can be hurtful and it is not helpful to repeatedly watch too much of the coverage. If you are concerned by your child’s responses, consider restricting their TV viewing and, if necessary, remove the TV from their room and closely monitor or restrict what they watch on electronic devices.”

If you have your own tips on how you manage media-related stress, please share below!