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MONDAY, Dec. 9, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- A new study suggests that immersing yourself in news of a shocking and tragic event may not be good for your emotional health.
People who watched, read and listened to the most coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings -- six or more hours daily -- reported the most acute stress levels over the following weeks. Their symptoms were worse than people who had been directly exposed to the bombings, either by being there or knowing someone who was there.
Those exposed to the media coverage typically reported around 10 more symptoms -- such as re-experiencing the tragedy and feeling stressed out thinking about it -- after the results were adjusted to account for other factors. The study authors say the findings should raise more concern about the effects of graphic news coverage.
The research comes with caveats. It's not clear if watching so much coverage directly caused the stress, or if those who were most affected share something in common that makes them more vulnerable. Nor is it known whether the stress affected people's physical health.
Still, the findings offer insight into the triggers for stress and its potential to linger, said study author E. Alison Holman, an associate professor of nursing science at the University of California, Irvine.
"If people are more stressed out, that has an impact on every part of our life. But not everyone has those kinds of reactions," she said. "It's important to understand that variation."
Holman, who studies how people become stressed, has worked on previous research that linked acute stress after the 9/11 attacks to later heart disease in people who hadn't shown signs of it before. Her research has also linked watching the 9/11 attacks live to a higher rate of later physical problems.
In the new study, researchers used an Internet survey to ask questions of 846 Boston residents, 941 New York City residents and 2,888 people from the rest of the country. The respondents regularly take part in surveys in return for compensation; the surveys don't include people who can't or won't use the Internet.
Those who were exposed to six or more hours of bombing news coverage a day reported more than twice as many symptoms of "acute stress," on average, as those who were directly exposed. The symptoms included such things as being "on edge" or trying to avoid thoughts of the bombing and its aftermath.
Holman said the findings held up even when the researchers adjusted their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by the numbers of people who are stressed out in general.
What about the ability of the most stressed-out people to devote six or more hours to news coverage a day? Does that mean they're retired, on disability or unemployed, and could that status play a role? Holman said being employed or unemployed doesn't appear to be a significant factor in the findings.
Holman cautioned that the findings examined stress levels in the weeks after the bombings but didn't look at them over the long term. The stress "could be a normal, acute and immediate reaction to an event that dissipates," she noted.
But the gist of the study stands, she said: More exposure to coverage seems to be connected to more stress. The study authors suggested that doctors, government officials and the media be aware of this link.
Jon Elhai, an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toledo, said the study appears to be both valid and important, although researchers are divided on whether Internet surveys such as the one used in this study are valid.
Elhai acknowledged that it's difficult to figure out which came first -- stress or news coverage. People might be stressed in general and be drawn to news coverage or become stressed out by the coverage. But Elhai praised the researchers for trying to account for the mental health of the participants.
Why do the findings matter?
"Knowing information about the effect of media exposure on mental health after a disaster can inform public health initiatives," Elhai said. "For example, after a local disaster, the Red Cross usually tries to get local media coverage to help provide information about physical and mental health problems that may be present in order to help people adjust and get help that they may need."
The study appears in the Dec. 9-13 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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