The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut pulls at the heartstrings of all of us. We long to know that everyone involved will soon find some measure of comfort and peace.
As we search for answers to why the tragedy unfolded in the first place and to how to help children who are suffering trauma recover, many have offered helpful ideas. One idea struck me as not only of benefit in dealing with trauma but also useful for preventing the illnesses that can accompany stress and emotional duress.
In a recent opinion piece¹ in Heritage-Media West newspapers, Smita Nagpal, a licensed psychologist and licensed professional counselor, advised, “Limit exposure to TV images and news coverage. The graphic images and repetitive scenes can be disturbing for children.” “Talk honestly about the incident, without graphic detail…”
“Research tells us there is a link between watching news of traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, and stress symptoms” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD² (posttraumatic stress disorder). In the case of the Oklahoma bombing, watching more bomb-related news resulted in more PTSD symptoms for children but not so for adults. In the Mount St. Helens tragedy adults who lost friends or family said news coverage made it harder to recover.
A study³ by the Department of Emergency Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine found that, among New Yorkers, “watching 12 or more hours of September 11 attack anniversary news coverage was associated with a 3.4-fold increased risk of new-onset probable PTSD”.
Viewing large quantities of graphic images of a traumatic event appears to have the same effect – to a degree at least – as witnessing the event in person. It increases fear and stress that have been found to have a negative impact on health.
Mary Baker Eddy, a pioneer in the effects on health of thought and spirituality, wrote insightfully more than 100 years ago about the harmful impact graphic images can have: “The press unwittingly sends forth many sorrows and diseases among the human family. It does this by giving names to diseases and by printing long descriptions which mirror images of disease distinctly in thought.”4
She refers to both “sorrows” and “diseases”. Taking in images of tragedy tends to induce sorrow – and fear and stress – while taking in images of symptoms of disease tends to induce fear and disease.
So, just as it is important to limit our intake of graphic images of tragedy, it is likewise important for our health to limit our intake of the images of disease. This is evident in the curious disease called “medical students’ disease” in which 70 to 80 percent of medical students experience symptoms of the disease(s) they are studying.
The early followers of Jesus seemed to understand this. St. Paul said, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. “5
And Fred Rogers, beloved host of the children’s TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, offers this comforting guidance: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” 6
While we regroup from the recent tragedy, it holds for us a valuable lesson: the benefit to mental and physical health of learning to fill thought with images of goodness – of the best of humanity – and to limit the graphic images of both tragedy and disease that we are willing to allow in.