How to cope with distressing news in the media 

By |2020-05-28T17:12:18+10:00January 23rd, 2020|

Bushfires and other natural disasters, terrorist attacks, mass shootings and other tragic events have occurred throughout history.  These events have impacted millions and millions of people around the globe. Even as recently as 20 years ago our knowledge of these events may have been limited to an article in the daily newspaper or an account in a radio broadcast. 

Today, with social media and 24-hour news coverage, our understanding of and exposure to such events has drastically changed. By simply turning on our phone, we can be flooded with images or videos of tragedy, and some may even be streamed in real time. 

There are both positive and negative consequences of this newfound access to tragic events.  On the positive side, widespread knowledge of tragedy and conflict creates a collective experience that enables people to grieve and rebuild together, in what previously may have been an isolated endeavor for those who have been affected. 

However, this collective experience, can make us vulnerable to the effects of trauma exposure.  Researchers HoustonSpialek and First (2018) compiled a summary of literature that has explored the relationship between disaster media coverage and psychological outcomes, and a link to this paper can be found here.

In brief, this research lists the potential impacts of exposure to distressing events in the media as the following:


  • Increased feelings of anger, despair, anxiety and helplessness:
    These feelings may be directed at specific individuals or at agencies deemed to have some responsibility for causing the event.  These feelings may also be directed in a general way at the nature of modern society. Concerns about another event occurring, and not being able to prevent it, can lead to strong feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
  • Changes in our beliefs about the world resulting in distress:
    In the aftermath of tragic and traumatic events, previous beliefs that we may have held about our personal safety in the world can be disrupted.Where we once may have believed the world to be mostly safe and benign, it is distressing to suddenly be confronted with the possibility that this may not be the case.  People may change their behaviour in an attempt to stay safe in a now unsafe world (e.g. limiting public transport use following a terrorist attack or not visiting bushland areas in summer).
  • Recalling distressing images:
    Intrusive and distressing images of the event may come to mind, this is especially likely if the person witnessed graphic details of the event.  For example, recent coverage of the Australian bushfires have included many distressing images of burnt koalas and the charred remains of other animals.  These images cannot be unseen.
  • Distressing thoughts:
    A preoccupation with thinking about the event that can become distressing and disrupt daily functioning (e.g. ability to get to sleep, concentration, performance at work).

What should I do if I’m feeling affected?

Here are some practical tips that may help you if you are struggling. 

  • Focus on what you can control. At first, this may mean being deliberate about where you place your attention. For example, limiting social media usage, not reading distressing material before going to bed, or reading news stories with a more positive focus. Creating structure and routine into your day can also promote a sense of control.
  • Focus upon acts of human kindness amongst the devastation:  Create hope and optimism by focusing on the generosity others are showing to help people in need.  This is important. Following disaster there are often many stories of human kindness and goodwill.  
  • Contribute:  Decrease feelings of helplessness by contributing to a cause that could ease the suffering of those affected, such as donating to charity or becoming involved in relief efforts.
  • Share:  Reach out and connect with those who are having a similar experience. 
  • Practice self-compassion: Research has shown that when we respond to our distress with kindness and acceptance and view this distress as part of the human experience, we are more likely to experience positive psychological wellbeing.  This means accepting difficult feelings, allowing them to come and go, rather than fighting against them, denying them or telling ourselves that they mean something bad about us. Self-compassion practices that you can try can be found here 
  • Journal:  Write about your thoughts and feelings as a way of processing them.
  • Check your thinking: A common result of exposure to distressing news is a distressing bad feeling, which leads to a persistent belief that the event will occur again.   However, this belief can be disproportionate to the actual likelihood of this event happening again.  We feel bad, so we are more inclined to believe something bad is going to happen.  Yet, a dispassionate evaluation of the facts might suggest otherwise.  Asking yourself a series of questions in response to anxious thoughts about the future and your safety can be helpful in reducing anxiety. Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself.

Finally, media coverage of distressing events can also trigger memories of other traumatic events that you may have experienced.  

If you feel that you would like further support to manage distress from current or previous events, contact us at the Centre for Clinical Psychology.  We are a team of clinical psychologists with experience providing evidence-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder and other trauma related mental health issues.  

You can contact us on 03 9077 0122, or book online to make an appointment.


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