British Columbia

Faraway tragedies have real emotional impacts at home

If recent events have you feeling down, you're not imagining it. Even when far removed from tragic events, reading about them in the news can have very real emotional impacts on people.

Constant news coverage of distressing events takes a psychological toll

Women react near the scene where a truck mowed through revellers in Nice, southern France, Friday, July 15, 2016. Experts say tragic news from abroad has real emotional impacts. (The Associated Press)

Between Dallas, Calgary, Nice and now Turkey, it's been a dramatic week in the news — and if recent events have you feeling down, you're not imagining it.

Even when far removed from tragic events, reading about them in the news can have very real emotional impacts on people, and the constant exposure from 24-hour social and traditional news media doesn't help.

Joti Samra, a Vancouver psychologist, says tragic news stories can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness about the world even in people with no direct connection to the event.

"We want to have this idea that we can have influence over what we do, and that we are free agents in control of both our actions and things that are happening around us," Samra said.

"When events like these happen around us, they are fundamentally and truly out of our control."

That lack of control, Samra said, makes us anxious about our own lives, and the world more generally.

Graphic images can stick in minds

Robert Hanlon, a professor of political science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., says the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle means it can feel impossible to escape a constant sense of "doom and gloom" about world events.

Vigils and other shows of solidarity can help those removed from a news story feel more connected. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

"We see this stuff instantaneously as it happens ... even though it's tens of thousands of kilometres away," he said.

"When we hear these tragedies, it's just a natural human response to try to make sense of it and assess it, and it can really wear on the soul of a human being."

Samra said that graphic images, such as those from Thursday's attack in Nice, can imprint themselves on our minds even with only a few seconds of exposure, particularly if those images are outside our usual realm of experience.

She also said people who relate to or have have experienced trauma similar to what a news story depicts can feel particularly distressed by that news story — parents of toddlers, for example, in the case of Taliyah Marsman in Calgary.

For these reasons, she urged news media to be mindful when using graphic images — and also for news consumers to be mindful of their own consumption habits, and to regulate their news and social media intake if they find themselves feeling anxious or distressed.

The solution? Take control, stay positive

According to Hanlon, one way to reduce the psychological toll of a depressing but faraway news story is to do something in your own community to address it.

Several hundred Vancouverites gathered for a Black Lives Matter rally last weekend. Experts say local community action is a productive way to allay the stress caused by tragic news. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

He pointed to the efforts of communities across Canada in taking in refugees from war-torn Syria as an example.

"That's a real local effort in trying to help a problem that's transnational and on the other side of the world," he said.

Samra echoed this sentiment. She also said that tragic events can provide a "silver lining" of sorts, in that they provide an opportunity to reflect on what is important in our own lives — whether this means greater community involvement, or just taking the time to connect with loved ones.

"[A] positive frame that we can take is to say, what is this bring up for me, and what can I do right now today moving forward?" Samra said.

"How can I shift the way that I live my life to be more consistent with the values that are important for me?"

With files from CBC Radio One's BC Almanac and Daybreak Kamloops.