What Images of Terror Can Do to the Brain
Recent terror attacks have led to widespread sharing of graphic videos and photos revealing the devastation and heartbreak of each incident, and the cumulative effect of these images can have an impact even on people far from the scene, causing feelings of unease, fear and anxiety.
Images and video from Thursday’s attack in Nice, France, have spread across the globe on television and social media, increasing the chance that viewers may feel heightened fear — especially after attacks in Iraq, Turkey and the U.S., according to experts.
While those directly involved in the terror attack are obviously most at risk for developing related post-traumatic stress symptoms, experts have found even those not involved can be traumatized by watching frightening imagery.
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, researchers found that 44 percent of Americans reported at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder after viewing constant coverage, according to the National Center for PTSD. Additionally, one study found the amount of time watching TV coverage of the attacks affected their risk of PTSD symptoms.
“Research has shown that deliberate violence creates longer-lasting mental health effects than natural disasters or accidents,” according to researchers from the National Center for PTSD, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “The consequences for both individuals and the community are prolonged, and survivors often feel that injustice has been done to them. This can lead to anger, frustration, helplessness, fear, and a desire for revenge.”
Robin Gurwich, a psychologist at Duke University, said that multiple terror attacks can affect a person’s psyche even if they are not directly related to the attacks.
“It does take a toll on us,” she said, remarking people may feel They “can’t do one more” terror attack.
If the fear of terror events becomes overwhelming, it can start to cause symptoms of anxiety and depression ranging from changes in sleep and appetite to irritability.
“Are we having a harder time focusing on work and getting things done, are we more short and irritable with others, including our children?” Gurwich said of the symptoms. “If we’re noticing those things, it’s time to take a step back for ourselves.”
Gurwich said getting involved in either a faith-based community service, talking to a friend or seeking professional help can all be ways to cope with frightening news. Additionally, she stressed that people should take breaks.
“You can bear witness and do something. And taking a break from it, it doesn’t mean you’re uncaring,” she said. “While we have different levels of what we can watch, everybody needs a break from it. Watching it nonstop is not helpful for anyone.”
If you are feeling overwhelmed, resources are available through the American Psychological Association and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration below.