Can trauma be transmitted through television?

by Marc Wilson / 18 May, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Viewing traumatic events on TV can be as harmful as being there, and that includes Trump’s election.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the topic of a memorable talk at the Innovations in Health Psychology conference written about in this column last week. Although presenter Roxane Silver was a fellow passenger aboard a jetboat that became stranded up a glacier-fed river during a conference team-building excursion, her address had nothing to do with that chilling experience.

Silver, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, described a series of studies looking at acute stress responses to collective trauma. PTSD has been known about since it was first described as “soldier’s nostalgia” during the American Civil War, and it makes sense that witnessing first-hand something traumatic can cause ongoing problems. Silver’s work, however, focuses on not just direct exposure to something horrific, such as being present at the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, but also the effects of binge-viewing television coverage of such events.

Unsurprisingly, viewing footage of traumatic events can trigger some of the things that happen in PTSD – namely, activation of our neural fear circuits, leading to intrusions of those images into our consciousness when we don’t want or expect them.

Professor Roxane Silver.

Silver displayed a graph showing the level of acute stress symptoms of people who were present at the Boston bombing, compared with stress symptoms of people who weren’t there but watched from one to more than 10 hours a day of bombing-related media coverage.

The more reporting of the event people were exposed to, the more traumatised they were, and many of the binge-watchers were more stressed than people who were actually there. Essentially, these people are facilitating rumination about the bombing and continually activating their fear circuitry. As a result, they ended up seeing the world as a more dangerous and threatening place.

Perhaps even scarier, Silver also alluded to research showing that a quarter of Americans have watched at least part of a video of an Isis-perpetrated execution. A quarter of this quarter did so out of curiosity, 10% by accident and a rather disturbing 5% through “social sharing” of the “my husband asked me to watch it” kind.

I tend to avoid watching and re-watching this kind of traumatic material. With one exception, which was also on the minds of other conference-goers: the election of US President Donald Trump. “I can’t seem to stop reading left-wing accounts of how it all went wrong,” one attendee said. I, too, am retraumatising myself.

A presentation by Ohio State University professor Julian Thayer set out to show just how the election result might be harmful. Titled “Why Trump is Bad for Your Health: In Black and White”, it investigated the link between Trump’s ascent and a rise in hostility to racial minorities.

Thayer asked what the health consequences were for members of affected minority groups. One effect of being the target of racial prejudice, his research showed, is the kind of physiological arousal that goes along with the anger at being victimised.

His work showed anger at being victimised was bad for health. Your blood pressure, for example, takes longer to bounce back if you’re an African American exposed to racially charged argument, regardless of whether you bottle up the anger or express it.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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