By Erin Golden
Whether they’re happening across the country or halfway around the world, significant events like natural disasters, terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks have a way of seeping into our daily thoughts. While your rational side may know the likelihood of being directly affected by a given disaster is pretty small, the scary headlines, round-the-clock cable news coverage, and never-ending Facebook and Twitter updates are enough to rattle almost anyone.
In fact, researchers have found that repeated exposure to media coverage of frightening events can leave people with very real stress — sometimes even more than those who live closer to where the crises occurred.
Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of California, Irvine, studies the effects of media coverage on mental well-being. She and her colleagues found that people who spend a lot of time watching and reading news reports after crises or similar events unfold have a higher likelihood of heart problems and higher stress levels, even years later. It didn’t matter if the people lived hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the events.
“We found after the Boston Marathon bombing that people who were repeatedly exposed to images and stories about the bombing were more likely to have acute stress than the people who were actually at the marathon,” she says.
When frightening world events occur, Silver suggests a media diet: turn off the TV and stop scanning your Facebook feed for the latest disaster updates. “I would say there’s no psychological benefit to repeatedly listening to stories, watching videos and reading over and over again … a message that is not really changing,” she adds.
But while nonstop media coverage can play a major role in shaping our thinking, experts say it’s not the only reason we’re stressed. “Anxiety is often based on the degree to which we feel something is predictable, or under our control,” says George Kapalka, PhD, a professor of psychological counseling at New Jersey’s Monmouth University.
“What’s really making people feel anxious about this Ebola situation is that it’s deadly, the danger level is high, and we don’t have good ways of controlling it — [we] don’t have good ways of assuring people that, ‘No, there is no chance whatsoever that you will encounter it,” he adds, with regard to the 2014 disease crisis in West Africa.
Kapalka says the people most likely to get anxious about catching an epidemic disease or being the victim of a terrorist attack are those who fight anxiety in other parts of their life. “It has been shown, in a lot of research over many decades, that some people are just more predisposed to anxiety than others,” he adds.
If you’re a naturally anxious person, it doesn’t matter that it makes more sense to worry about things closer to home. “Even if the logical side of you may say: ‘Now, wait a minute, my chances of Ebola exposure are so minute that I have nothing to be worried about,” the anxious part of you will take over anyway,” Kapalka says. “Anxiety tends to be very irrational.”
Fortunately, even the more anxious among us can find ways to lessen our fears about things happening in the world.
Kapalka suggests using some of the same techniques you’d find in professional therapy. The first: a “reality check.” If you find yourself thinking obsessively about a news tidbit — perhaps a story on a person suspected of having a deadly disease who traveled on a plane — stop and run through the reality of the situation. Sure, he said, it’s possible you could somehow come into contact with that person, but it’s highly unlikely.
Remember, “being afraid every day, just because something like this is possible, but certainly not very likely, is going to make my life more difficult,” says Kapalka. “The effect of [the fear] will be more dangerous to a person than the actual risk of getting ebola.”
Second, Kapalka suggests using a technique that therapists call “thought stopping.” It’s essentially just what it sounds like: tripping up your thoughts by making a conscious decision to focus on something else. “If you find yourself, despite your best efforts, still ruminating over and over in your head about how dangerous it is and find yourself avoiding situations or places, then it’s time for you to say: ‘I need to stop, I’m consciously going to make an effort to stop myself from thinking about this,’” he says.
When racing thoughts lead to anxious feelings, Kapalka suggests turning to something that you enjoy and find relaxing, whether that’s listening to music, watching a favorite television show or participating in a favorite hobby.
He also recommends taking time to slow down with a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. While sitting or lying down, take as deep of a breath as possible and hold the air in your lungs for two to three seconds. Then, slowly release the air — slow enough that if you were holding a lit candle near your lips it would not be blown out. Breathe normally for about a minute, then take another deep breath. Research has shown that yogic breathing reduces anxiety and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition, Kapalka suggests a progressive relaxation technique: While sitting in a recliner or lying in bed, intermittently flex and release your muscles, starting with your toes and working all the way to your forehead.
If this advice fails, and anxiety has been a longtime concern for you, Kapalka says it could be time to consider getting professional assistance with these feelings. “If you have some recognition that you tend to get anxious about a lot of different things … and you seem to go through life [with anxiety] on a day-to-day basis and a good portion is you feeling anxious, that’s probably a good clue for you to seek some help,” he says.
Published on November 3, 2014
Erin Golden is a journalist based in Minnesota.
|Explore More In Our Hep C Learning Center|
What Is Hepatitis C?
Learn about this treatable virus.
Diagnosing Hepatitis C
Getting tested for this viral infection.
Just Diagnosed? Here’s What’s Next
3 key steps to getting on treatment.
Understanding Hepatitis C Treatment
4 steps to getting on therapy.
Your Guide to Hep C Treatments
What you need to know about Hep C drugs.
Managing Side Effects of Treatment
How the drugs might affect you.
Making Hep C Treatment a Success
These tips may up your chances of a cure.