Traumatic News Events Can Affect Your Physical and Psychological Health

Traumatic News Events Can Affect Your Physical and Psychological Health

By Nancy Maes

The news can be hazardous to your health. Distressing headlines about traumatic events such as school shootings, hate crimes, terrorist threats and even the contentious presidential election are so constant that it can rattle some people to their core.

“Unfortunately, we’re living in a traumatic world right now and there’s no escaping it,” says Michael Hakimi, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Loyola Medicine. “The bad news never stops and people can have a range of emotional and physiological reactions to these traumatic events.”

The heated 2016 presidential election was a major stressful event that had an impact on the wellbeing of a large number of Americans, regardless of which way they voted. According to a poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association in October, 52 percent of adults in the U.S. reported that the election was a very significant, or somewhat significant, source of stress.

News channels and social media seem to be a constant stream of inflammatory remarks. Anger, fear, confusion and despair are running rampant, and arguments can get heated on both sides.

“It’s devastating to see that our country is so divided and to see the outpouring of rage that has been repressed for so long,” says Neely Benn, licensed clinical social worker at NorthShore University HealthSystem. “ It touches people very acutely whether because of their ethnic or cultural or religious identity or their sexuality or because of their own history of sexual trauma. Social media has only exacerbated the issue because people use it to vent their pent-up emotions. Online bullying is epidemic because sometimes there are very few consequences.”

Dealing with distressing news events can take its toll, Benn says. “[Some people] are anxious, depressed; some may be losing weight or gaining weight; others are resorting to adverse coping mechanisms such as drinking or taking drugs. When you’re depressed your motivation can decrease so people are sometimes less inclined to take care of themselves.”

Hakimi points out that people are having not only psychological reactions to traumatic news events, but physical ones as well. “They experience shaking or trembling, crying, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, nightmares and problems focusing and concentrating,” he says. “The degree and severity varies from one individual to the next and some people may not experience any of them.”

People who are feeling overwhelmed by the 24/7 onslaught of traumatic news can find solace in a wide range of coping techniques. “The first thing is to accept your emotions, express them and understand that it is normal to have these feelings without judging them because there is no right or wrong way to feel,” Hakimi says.

It’s also important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news. For those who feel a need to stay up-to-date on every late-breaking headline, Hakimi suggests that they watch the news with a trusted family member or friend so they have someone to talk to about their feelings who can provide emotional support.

It is especially important to limit exposure of children and adolescents to traumatic news. “They are a special group because they don’t have the emotional resources and the intellectual ability to understand what is going on,” Hakimi explains. “Parents should let children express their feelings and assure them that they are safe and will always be protected.” Parents can also sit next to children if they do watch the news, so they can discuss the issues with them.

To de-stress, adults can spend time doing activities they enjoy to clear their minds. Participating in a hobby, reading, cooking, watching a movie, playing a sport, playing with their children or cuddling with a pet can keep their mind off distressing news events and opinions.

Relaxation techniques are also helpful. Hakimi recommends deep breathing for people who are feeling tense and stressed. He says they should take a deep breath through their nose and let it out very slowly through their mouth, repeating the cycle for five minutes. Meditation, prayer, yoga, tai chi and nature walks are also helpful in minimizing stress. Thirty minutes of exercise can also dissipate stress by producing feel-good endorphins that lift the spirit.

Benn points out that thankfulness can be an antidote to today’s ambient animosity. “Gratitude is a very important attitude to build because it makes you feel less hopeless and more connected to what you have in your life. It makes you more resilient over time,” she says. “Take the time in the morning and at night to write down five things you are grateful for and share them with other people. We’re living in an environment that is causing so much irritability and conflict. Right now it’s our job to build stronger interpersonal connections and to nurture each other with kindness.”

People can also manage their stress by donating to a cause or volunteering. “People feel hopeless because they think there is nothing they can do, but that’s not really true,” Hakimi says. “Everybody can do something, even if it’s in a very small way like helping an elderly woman carry her groceries from the store to her car. Anytime we do something for others we defeat the feeling of helplessness. If everybody made a little difference, imagine the cumulative effect.”

If coping strategies don’t alleviate the symptoms of stress, it is important to seek professional help in finding a sense of emotional and physical wellbeing. With help, you can find the ability to enjoy life at a safe distance from the turmoil of traumatic news and events.

Originally published December 22, 2016.