We’ve Gone From One Negative News Cycle to Another — Why That’s So Triggering

Plus, here’s how experts say you can take care of yourself if upsetting news headlines have you feeling sad, worried, angry, or retraumatized.

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Although it's important to stay informed, taking frequent breaks from watching or reading the news is crucial for your well-being, experts say.

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Today’s news headlines are rife with constant coverage of?gun violence, hate crimes, assault, the devastating consequences of a global pandemic, worsening natural disasters, and war. These events are undoubtedly traumatic for people directly affected by them. But even just hearing about devastating news — even if it didn’t happen to you — can trigger a trauma response, too.

This is what’s known as secondary traumatic stress — or the emotional distress a person can experience after hearing about someone else’s firsthand traumatic experiences, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

A small study published in 2013 in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease showed that around 19 percent of mental health professionals who work with and listen to the traumatic experiences of military veterans experience secondary traumatic stress themselves.

The news could also trigger a trauma response in someone who has personally experienced a similar traumatic event. “For those with a previous trauma history, witnessing violence [or another type of trauma] on TV can bring back memories and reactions of their own trauma, particularly if that trauma was closely related,” says Gerard Lawson, PhD, a licensed professional counselor and a professor in the school of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Dr. Lawson helped coordinate a counseling response to the April 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

Having a secondary traumatic stress response to news is common when it comes to identity-based hate crimes, such as the anti-Black, racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, says Janelle S. Peifer, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who conducts research on the intersection of trauma and identity. Watching news like this unfold can have a significant impact on people with the same race or ethnicity, even if they don’t personally know the people who were attacked.

A secondary trauma response can be worse if you personally identify with the victim, adds Dr. Peifer. “The coverage of George Floyd's killing was particularly traumatizing for Black men and Black people in general,” Peifer notes as an example.

Yet another example is the wave of?anti-Asian hate crimes and conspiracy theories blaming Asian people for COVID-19. According to a paper published in October 2020 in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Perspectives and Scholarship (PDF), news related to these incidents has had a significant impact on the mental health of Asian Americans, raising their risk of race-related traumatic stress.

While you may not be able to immediately stop the flood of traumatic events that fill our news headlines and newsfeeds, you can take steps to manage your own emotional response. The first step is recognizing the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. Per PTSD UK, it can show up in the following ways:

  • Becoming emotionally exhausted
  • Developing anxiety and depression
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Having an increasingly negative self-image
  • Having trouble eating or sleeping

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How Can You Balance Staying Informed and Not Becoming Too Distressed?

What can you do if you’re experiencing secondary traumatic stress from the news? While it’s important to be informed about what’s happening in the world, it’s also crucial to prioritize your well-being. Here’s how experts say you can do both:

Limit Your Social Media Use

Nowadays, people access the news in myriad different ways — gone are the days of keeping up with the news solely through newspapers and TV reports, consumed at specific times over the course of the day. Today, many of us are consuming information (and news) via social media frequently over the course of a day. And this type of continuous use can be overwhelming if it’s flooding us with nonstop traumatic headlines.

For instance, a study published in January 2021 in Computers in Human Behavior showed that excessive social media use was associated with depression and secondary trauma among people living in Wuhan, China, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sometimes social media posts offer more graphic news material or raw detail than we might get in a news article — or that we might need to stay informed, explains Lawson. More traditional media outlets may be more likely to deliver news in a more sensitive way that’s potentially less triggering to viewers, he says.

RELATED: Is Social Media Busting or Boosting Your Stress?

Take Frequent Breaks From Watching or Reading the News

It may also help to take breaks and turn off the news when following coverage of traumatic events, adds Lawson.

“I think it is important to set and keep to a limit on how much time you will spend consuming this news, like 10 to 20 minutes,” Lawson advises. “It is easy to follow one story into the next, and soon you have spent hours immersed in the traumatic material, which can contribute to the vicarious [or secondary] trauma.”

Peifer agrees, adding that while research has traditionally focused on those who’ve directly experienced or witnessed traumatic events, people are increasingly reporting trauma responses just from seeing or hearing the news, due to greater access to traumatic material 24/7 across news, social media, and other platforms. “For example, with the news coverage around the Uvalde school shooting, clients have noted changes in hypervigilance, rumination, worry about sending their child to school, nightmares, and many symptoms,” Peifer explains.

Tune In to How Your Mind and Body Feel During a Newscast

Be sure to pay attention to any thoughts and physical sensations you’re having — such as sweating or a rapid heartbeat, for instance — during a continuous news cycle, says Lawson. If you’re experiencing intense anxiety and sadness or feeling overwhelmed, it may signal that it’s time for you to take a break and take care of yourself, whether it be through talking to a loved one about what you’re feeling, listening to calming music, or going for a nature walk. Any activity that brings you joy and helps you feel well enough to go about your daily life counts as self-care.

Follow the "put on your own oxygen mask before helping others" philosophy, says Lawson. “The same concept applies here.” If you’re experiencing debilitating secondary trauma due to news coverage, you’re not going to be able to properly take care of yourself or others around you.

Channel Your Emotion Into Action

If you feel up to it, Lawson adds, you could channel your anger, sadness, or any other emotion you’re feeling into action for change, such as writing to your senators and representatives in Congress about your support for legislation to help prevent certain traumatic events such as gun violence or hate crimes from repeating.

Seek Professional Help if You Need It

If you experience any of the following symptoms for more than a few days or feel like you can’t go about your daily life as normal, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend you reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for help:

  • Appetite changes
  • Energy or activity level changes
  • Experiencing headaches, stomach aches, body pains, and skin rashes
  • Feeling angry, sad, fearful, worried, frustrated, or numb
  • Having trouble concentrating and making decisions
  • Having trouble sleeping or nightmares
  • Increasing your use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs
  • Worsening of chronic health issues

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