Media Exposure Can Harm People Who Survive Highly Traumatic Situations

Posted on August 20th, 2015

Media Exposure Can Harm People Who Survive Highly Traumatic SituationsSome survivors of terror attacks experience an increase in their PTSD-related reactions after receiving attention from the news media, according to recent findings from a group of Norwegian researchers.

Acts of terror are among the many life-threatening situations and events capable of triggering the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a study published in December 2014 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from two Norwegian institutions examined the impact that interactions with media representatives can have in the aftermath of exposure to a terror attack. The researchers concluded that a sizable minority of people who speak to the media after trauma exposure will experience a worsening of their PTSD-related reactions.

PTSD and Trauma Exposure

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a lingering or delayed stress reaction that substantially impairs a person’s ability to experience a sense of well-being or lead a functional life. In some cases, the disorder is a continuation of acute stress disorder (ASD), a separately diagnosed ailment that appears in the short-term aftermath of exposure to highly traumatic circumstances. In other cases, affected individuals develop PTSD without ever experiencing ASD. Regardless of the presence or lack of acute stress disorder, doctors only diagnose PTSD in people suffering the ill effects of an event or situation that occurred at least 30 days in the past.

In addition to acts of terror and natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, traumatic events and situations known for their association with the eventual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder include sexual assaults, physical assaults, combat, major illnesses, major accidents and childhood exposure to sexual or physical abuse. Roughly 20 percent of all American women exposed to these sources of trauma will develop PTSD, the National Center for PTSD reports. Among American men, the rate of PTSD onset after trauma exposure stands at approximately 8 percent.

Who Is At Risk for a Trauma Reaction?

Doctors and researchers are well aware that some people exposed to traumatic circumstances have higher chances of developing PTSD than the rest of the population. In addition to women, at-risk segments of the population include people who experience prolonged forms of trauma, people who experience especially intense or severe forms of trauma, people who react in a strongly negative manner in the immediate aftermath of trauma exposure, people who feel that their trauma exposure was out of their control, people directly involved in a traumatic event or situation and people who receive little or no emotional support in the aftermath of trauma exposure.

Impact of Media Exposure

In the study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies used information gathered from 285 survivors of an infamous 2011 Norwegian terror attack to help determine if media contact in the aftermath of trauma exposure increases the risks for adverse reactions that point toward the onset of PTSD. The researchers conducted sit-down interviews with each of these survivors more than a year after the attack occurred. They asked each survivor to detail his or her interactions with the media in the period of time directly following the attack. In addition, they looked for indications of PTSD in each survivor.

The researchers found that fully 94 percent of the study participants were approached by reporters in the aftermath of the terror attack. Eighty-eight of the participants actually spoke with the media. The researchers concluded that, in most cases, the attack survivors did not have a negative response to the requests from the media; they also concluded that most of the survivors did not experience any increase in their PTSD-related reactions after being contacted by the media. However, a sizable minority of the survivors described their interactions with the media as “quite distressing or extremely distressing.” These individuals did experience a substantial uptick in their PTSD-related reactions.

The study’s authors concluded that the attack survivors with relatively meager social support networks were somewhat more likely to feel distressed by their media interactions than other attack survivors. They believe that increased awareness of the possible PTSD-related impact of media interviews in the aftermath of deadly or life-threatening events should benefit members of the news media, as well as doctors who treat patients who survive such events.

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