Anxiety disorders affect more than a million Australians, and almost 10% of the population. Such disorders include conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Though these conditions rank among the most common mental health conditions, they’re also some of the most treatable. And in an increasingly anxiety-driven world, that revelation may come as welcome news to anxiety sufferers.
Unfortunately, though, sources of anxiety in our society are rapidly increasing, not declining like we might otherwise hope. Television and social media are home to an endless parade of violence, bad news, and scary imagery. According to a new study, these haunting images may have real consequences for mental health. Researchers found that people exposed to frightening imagery on social media might suffer symptoms of trauma, in spite of never directly experiencing trauma themselves.
Media Trauma and Vicarious Suffering
Nearly 200 participants with no mental illness and no previous history of trauma completed questionnaires about their mental health. Researchers also asked participants questions about recent exposure to traumatic imagery on Facebook. Common examples of such imagery might include stories about terrorism, images of school shootings, or news of violence against children and families.
To the researchers’ surprise, those who had recently witnessed such imagery on social media showed symptoms similar to those associated with PTSD. Mental health experts have long thought that PTSD results only from experiencing a traumatic incident—such as a rape or natural disaster—firsthand. This study indicates that it may be possible to be vicariously traumatized by someone else’s traumatic experience if the imagery is powerful enough. Nearly a quarter of all participants scored high on a PTSD scoring measure.
How Trauma Affects Well-Being
Trauma poses a serious public health crisis. People exposed to trauma can suffer a range of ailments, most notably PTSD. The most common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Intrusive memories, known as flashbacks, of the traumatic event
- Depression, anxiety, problems with motivation, and difficulty concentrating
- Unexplained health problems
- Difficulty sleeping
- Panic attacks
- Intense fear
- Avoiding stimuli associated with the trauma, such as people who witnessed the incident or the place where it occurred
- Difficulty with emotional regulation
- Relationship problems
PTSD isn’t just a psychological issue, though. Research consistently suggests that trauma can lead to a host of personal and social ills, including:
- An increased risk of addiction
- Violent, angry, or criminal behavior
- Health problems such as cancer, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and unexplained headaches; many trauma survivors develop physical health symptoms, particularly when they are unable to find healthy ways to cope with their psychological distress.
- Economic loss. One study put the cost of childhood trauma alone at $9 billion annually. Traumatized people may be unable to work, or may suffer so intensely that they’re less productive and less able to live up to their potential.
- Child neglect and abuse. Though traumatized people can and do go on to be wonderful parents, some are so distracted by their own trauma that they are unable to provide loving support to their children.
If frightening media images are sufficient to induce trauma, then nearly everyone is at risk. It’s possible that a massive segment of the Aussie population isn’t living up to its full potential because of the ready availability of frightening imagery. This suggests that media outlets might actually improve public health if they used upsetting imagery more judiciously or more sparingly.
How Counselling Can Help
Trauma causes intense suffering, but it doesn’t have to. PTSD, anxiety, and other trauma-related symptoms are highly treatable, particularly when suffering people pursue treatment early in their recovery journeys.
So what does counselling offer people struggling with trauma? A judgment-free environment where traumatized people can freely express their emotions can work wonders. Many people living with trauma are afraid to express themselves or worried about how their suffering will affect others. The right counsellor, though, helps traumatized people escape this fear.
From there, your counsellor will work with you to gain a better understanding of the specific ways the trauma has affected you. Though you can’t go back in time and undo what happened, you can change the way you react to it. Pain and anger are normal and expected reactions, and your counsellor will help you feel and express those feelings. But eventually, these feelings can inhibit your life and your growth as a human being. When this happens, your counsellor will help you find new ways of coping while enabling you to abandon old, unhealthy strategies for coping with your suffering.
At Three Seas, we know it’s not easy to reach out for help, but we also know that traumatized people both need and deserve assistance. We’re ready to be the helping hand that gets you over the hurdle of trauma, and back to enjoying how truly wonderful life can be.