Secondary Traumatic Stress in the General Public Following Disasters: A Personal Experience

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is a reaction exhibited by individuals who indirectly witness or are exposed to a traumatic event, are impacted, and exhibit symptoms similar to that of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other trauma disorders. In other words, the individual experiencing STS did not experience the trauma first-hand, but was otherwise exposed and impacted. STS most commonly affects individuals who are exposed to second-hand trauma through their profession (e.g., counselors, nurses, clinicians, emergency response personnel, law enforcement, etc.), or those with friends or loved ones who have been victims of trauma. However, through the increasing reach of the media, both through traditional news/radio broadcasts and the rapid explosion of social media, STS can affect the general population as well.

Media coverage of terror attacks and natural disasters can elicit strong emotions, and in some cases, reported symptoms of trauma disorders in persons who have no direct relation to the event being covered. Researchers are beginning to study the effects of secondary trauma on viewers of media coverage. Through media coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attack, many viewers repeatedly watched the twin towers fall. Real-time videos and images of natural disasters are more often captured on smart phones, and images of the devastation, interviews with victims, etc., are shown over countless media outlets. The U.S. has experienced a devastating number of high school and university campus shootings, and over the course of the past year, we have seen mass shootings occurring in locations which have previously been considered safe –a movie theatre, shopping mall, and perhaps most disturbingly –Sandy Hook Elementary School, located in the quaint small town of Newtown, Connecticut. With the victims of this latest shooting having been young children, this tragedy deeply affected residents of the town, and the general public as well. Parents and siblings, and teachers across the nation can empathize, and many perhaps wonder if this could occur in their cities and towns. Images of policemen with tears in their eyes have no doubt affected many law enforcement officers across the country, my husband included.

With increased and repeated exposure to such catastrophes, symptoms of secondary trauma impact the general population in various ways. Some experience grief, some anger, some fear, some persistent anxiety, and conversely, some experience numbness. My own severalfold reaction first engulfed me in sadness and grief, then anger. Later, when I was least expecting it, I felt anxiety. This occurred prior to my entrance into a very congested concert venue, where I suddenly had second thoughts and began to revisit images of the past and more recent mass shootings. I had pictured a similar situation occurring that night and was immediately very anxious. After the concert, I shared this with my friends, and one of them was able to empathize as she had a similar experienced a similar thought.

This account is only a minor demonstration of how one’s sense of security and perceptions of the world can be flipped by exposure to secondary trauma through the media’s coverage of such tragedies. Listed below are some resources for dealing with STS and the aftermath of disasters.

Resources

Invisible wounds of war, Training & Technical Assistance, Trauma