The News Effect: Link Between Natural Disasters & Mental Health

We speak to mental health specialists on the psychological impact of Natural Calamities on the World’s Mental Health.

By Sanjana Chawla, 8 Apr 2023

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Earthquakes and natural calamities of all kinds destroy not only resources and properties but also cause the loss of life and loved ones. On February 6, 2023, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck several parts of Syria and Turkey. Referred to as the fifth-deadliest seismic event of the world in the 21st century, the countries have been facing recurring aftershocks and tremors ever since. A new earthquake of magnitude 6.4 braced the already affected parts of the countries soon after, adding to the existing destruction and losses. As of February 22, 2023, the death toll of the heartwrenching calamity stands at approximately 47,000 with several being seriously injured.

According to Turkey’s Environment and Urbanization Ministry, around 105,794 buildings were destroyed and demolished after the earthquake and the aftershocks following it. As the tremors intensified and occurred, buildings, offices, and structures collapsed one after the other—making for a horrifying scene. Amid this catastrophe, people dead and alive, young and old, had to be pulled out of the rubble, rescued, and saved.

Ever since the inception of this natural disaster, media organizations and journalists across the world have been sharing earthquake-related information. From sharing satellite images of the countries showing the degree of destruction to writing elongated pieces highlighting the death toll and preventive measures to take—social media and digital spaces have witnessed an array of information on calamities. This information is accessible and available to not only those in the affected areas or the Middle East but all States and Countries across the globe.

Natural Disasters cause immense levels of grief, stress, and trauma to those who have been a witness or a survivor or have lost someone in an event. The impact of such disasters is lasting as it often involves deaths, losses, and harm on several grounds such as physical, emotional, and mental. Survivors and victims of events such as earthquakes get prone to developing stress, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorders. While the trauma faced by someone who experiences any such situation first-hand can’t be negated or given the right words, what we often forget is the impact of disasters on the consumers of news and civilians.

The media, in their pursuit of spreading awareness and assuring timely disposal of information, often forgets the potential harm that this information overload of the gruesome images and statistics of the earthquake is doing to people— the survivors, the affected families, as well as media users who are sitting in a different country and just reading the news.

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The Effect Of The Earthquake On Mental Health

The dynamics of news presentations have undergone a huge change, especially now with a lot of people having access to smartphones and social media. People take pictures and put them on social media without any filters or moderating the images before presenting them on mainstream news channels and other sources. Even though an individual might not directly be present in the scenario, a major chunk of how and what they feel is formed by how the news is presented to the viewers.

According to Chetna Luthra, a Clinical Psychologist & Counselor from Delhi, humans get triggered whenever they are exposed to the sufferings of other humans or things like natural or man-made disasters. Situations such as these cause us to question our existence and may make us feel more pessimistic about the future.

Speaking on the representation of the Turkey-Syria Earthquake, Luthra told Fair Planet, “The entire way this news is presented is eliciting the feelings of fear and panic amongst viewers and is even generating higher views and grabbing attention. The way visuals and headlines are being broadcast can trigger feelings of helplessness, negative emotions, and thoughts for a lot of people”.

How Brain Works To The Information

People who struggle with pre-existing pessimism, negative thoughts, anxiety-related issues, excessive worry, or have recently experienced negative emotions, tend to over-focus on negative and trauma-related information. This is primarily because the way our brain processes negative information is different from the way positive information is processed.

Explaining the phenomenon, Luthra added, “Humans have what we call a negativity bias that is we pay more attention to information that is negative as compared to experiences that are positive and we might even make decisions based on that and only remember negative bits.”

She aligns this bias and cognitive distortion with the innate need to protect ourselves from threatening situations. Additionally, since our evolution, we are wired to always be on the run and compete for our survival. While processing negative information, critical areas of thinking in our brain get activated, thus enabling us to be better survivors.

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Awakening Of Alternate Realities & Fear

According to Luthra, individuals who are situated far from any place of calamity or disaster can still get triggered because the related news can make them think of alternate situations and imagine themselves in a similar situation.

“A person can think about alternative realities where they might imagine themselves in a situation such as the Turkey-Syria earthquake and think of what they would do or how they would cope if they were there. Such feelings can hit an individual unexpectedly and threaten them, especially, if they start thinking about losing a loved one and their family”, explained Luthra.

A person can also start mapping escape plans, emergency exits, or routes, and evaluate if they even have adequate resources to deal with a tragedy of this sort. Luthra also added that imagining the worst-case scenarios, indulging in excessive daydreaming, and vivid imagination may become regular to the point where it becomes a sensory experience for them.

She concluded, “Disengaging from the experience, disassociating from the calamity, and controlling emotions and our mind may become difficult in such cases.”

Continuous exposure to gory details, graphic images, and highlighted numbers makes the imaginative experience more intense and real, and thus the individual is bound to get more affected because of it.”

“Another phenomenon that plays a role in determining how we would feel if we were to face the same situation is known as affective forecasting. Humans indulge in the art of predicting how they will feel and what their way of responding or emotions will be in the future by imagining scenarios in their head,” she added.

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Coping With The Negativity & Fears

The foremost step in battling with and overcoming any situation is by recognizing that you are experiencing something and looking out for symptoms. Physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate, body tremors, and headaches, and emotional symptoms such as low mood, excessive worry, inability to concentrate, overthinking, sleep issues, etc. are some of the few and most noticeable symptoms according to Luthra. An individual must understand that one can even experience trauma from a distance.

“It would be best to start reducing the exposure to such information, especially first thing in the morning and right before you go to sleep”, suggested Luthra.

She emphasised the need of developing healthier practices such as mindfulness, meditation, physical exercises, spending time with people who help one in feeling better, consuming positive content, and choosing healthier and verified sources of news. Engaging in journaling, positive visualisation, and talking to a trusted person can also help one de-stress and feel lighter.

Luthra added, “Most of what we feel and think are our imagination. Identifying thoughts that are just opinions and not facts helps work through cognitive distortions or maladaptive ways of thinking. Recognising triggers and understanding how anxiety or negative symptoms occur after an event or incident would also help address and come out of the intrusive thinking pattern”.

Taking professional help in learning how to identify and eventually manage your triggers can be done when an individual realises they are not able to help themselves or have limited support. “If the person feels they’re unable to manage the symptoms and there is significant impairment in their routine functioning, they should seek professional help”, Luthra concluded.