Internet-Induced Trauma after Boston Marathon Shootings

June 15th, 2013 | Posted by Brian Pearson in Uncategorized
 Hello Dr. Nagpal,
Last week, after the Boston Marathon bombings, I became complete engrossed
with the “who done it” aspect of the story. I followed along on Reddit.com’s “FindBostonBombers” forum, where users posted picture after picture of the scene, looking for people who came with backpacks and left without. Many pictures were post explosion, and showed the gruesome carnage. I listened to the Boston police scanner during the shootout and manhunt, while following updates on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet. This week, I feel like I’m in a fog. I don’t know why, but I feel certain it’s related to immersing myself into the tragedy in Boston. Recently, I was in a crowd, and for a brief second, I visualized the crowd as if I was studying the picture on the Internet. That’s when I knew I’d overdone it. So I have two questions: 1) What drives me (and others) to devote the better part of a week to trying to live inside a tragedy? And, 2) Can consumption of information over the Internet cause a mild form of PTSD?
Dear Well-Intentioned but Foggy:
Thank you for sharing your story with us. You are right. Engaging in the type of obsessive behavior that you did, following the Boston Marathon bombings, is the likely reason for your “fog,” and most certainly the reason you found yourself scanning an unrelated crowd. Many are driven to these types of behaviors after a senseless tragedy, typically out of a desire to do something to help. In this instance, there was a specific request by law enforcement to have the general public assist in finding the “Boston Bombers.” You fell prey to the urge to find these people who caused so much harm, and find them fast! The mix of grief and anger that followed this tragedy, the desire for justice to be done, and in this case, the possibility of being able to contribute something to make this happen, are likely what drove you (and countless others) to “live inside” this tragedy for “the better part of a week.”
However, as your hours and days in front of the screen might testify, not many of us have the same talent at breaking code as mathematician, John Nash, in A Beautiful Mind. John Nash did, indeed, “lose his mind” in his quest to find the “hidden clues” in newspapers and magazines. The fact that John Nash had a mental illness to begin with, is a different matter.
The truth is that many of us will develop signs of Post Traumatic Stress disorder, or PTSD, when focusing on images of a tragedy. It seems like Reddit.com’s forum not only showed pictures of people during the race, but as you said, also of the “gruesome carnage” afterwards. I am afraid that you did, in actuality, start suffering from a form of PTSD that can affect those not directly impacted by the tragedy, but who are viewing images of the experience. The most common recommendation to recover from this is to stop or reduce exposure to media images of the event.
Fear can also be a common response to unexpected violence and another reason why we might continue to watch internet or television stories long after the event is past. Somehow, if we know more, or so we reason, we can prevent this from happening. Not true, but it sure is a common response when an event like the Marathon Bombing leaves us with a sense of vulnerability, a possibility that “it could have been me,” or that a loved one might have been hurt. I can tell you this was true for me, with my son being about 3 miles away from the bombings, and in residence at a University through which the bombers later led the police in a chase. Although, fortunately, he took great care to keep me informed of his safety, I did notice myself following the various news stories and being at a greater than normal “alert” level, until after the second bomber was safely in custody.
I know that some of you might have had loved ones who were even closer, or you yourself were present at the Boston Marathon. The closer you were, the greater the likelihood of trauma. However, sometimes an event such as this one can simply serve as a trigger for a past traumatic memory. I can only imagine what some of the victims and families of past bomb attacks are going through. Whatever the reason for our trauma response being triggered, it is important that we recognize when we are being affected. Here are some additional recommendations for dealing with any post-traumatic responses we might be experiencing:
  1. Try to continue with normal routines. There is something quite grounding about routines.
  2. Try to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can be disorienting in itself.
  3. Talk to someone you trust about your feelings. Then try to reduce the “head time” you are giving to the event. In other words, try to move to another topic or distract yourself if you find yourself thinking about the event.
  4. Stay connected to loved ones and friends. Isolation can increase the sense of trauma and close off avenues for healing.

Again, thanks for writing in with this question. There will no doubt be more photos and stories about the Boston Marathon bombings in the weeks to come. I hope that realizing what you did about your own reactions, you have been able to re-direct you attention away from the media, or at least stay away from the media stories that continue to aggressively portray images of the Boston attacks.

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