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The Science Behind Why We Can't Look Away From Disasters

Why death and destruction command our attention and how to stop the news from negatively affecting your health.

by Danielle Page /
Images of the destruction from Hurricane Maria — like this shot from San Juan, Puerto Rico — have kept us glued to the television over the past few days. Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images file

You're stuck in a traffic jam on the highway. As you creep along at a snail's pace, you can see that there are police cars up ahead. There has been an accident, and although the cars that collided are off to the side and not obstructing the road whatsoever, each car that passes by slows down to observe the damage — and you're no exception.

Whether it's a tragedy we witness on our morning commute or news of natural disasters that flood our social feeds, we feel compelled to stare at the aftermath. Why can't we look away? Here's the science behind why death and destruction command our attention, and what to do to stop the news of daily disasters from becoming detrimental to your mental health.

How Our Brains React to Disaster

What happens to our brains when we see destruction? According to Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand, the process is one that actually triggers our survival instincts.

"A disaster enters into our awareness — this can be from a live source such as driving by a traffic accident or from watching a news report about a hurricane, a plane crash or any disaster," he explains. "This data from our perceptual system then stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat to you, thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the 'fight or flight' response is evoked."

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One study found that we react to and learn more from negative experiences than we do positive ones.

One study found that we react to and learn more from negative experiences than we do positive ones.

Ever see a car accident happen and find yourself compelled to Google what happened? Dr. Mayer says this is also our survival instincts at work. "This acts as a preventive mechanism to give us information on the dangers to avoid and to flee from," he says.

Once we go through this process and deem what we're witnessing a non-threat, psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson says that we continue to stare as a way to face our fears without risking immediate harm.

"Witnessing violence and destruction, whether it is in a novel, a movie, on TV or a real life scene playing out in front of us in real time, gives us the opportunity to confront our fears of death, pain, despair, degradation and annihilation while still feeling some level of safety," he explains. "This sensation is sometimes experienced when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or look through the glass at a ferocious lion at the zoo. We watch because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: 'If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? Would I be the hero or the villain? Could I endure the pain? Would I have the strength to recover?' We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control."

Looking at disasters stimulates our empathy and we are programmed as humans to be empathetic.

Looking at disasters stimulates our empathy and we are programmed as humans to be empathetic.

Studies have found that our negativity bias is also a driver of why we can't divert our attention from disasters.

One study published by the American Psychological Association found that we react to and learn more from our negative experiences than we do positive ones. "Humans are prone to negative bias and negative potency," explains psychologist Dr. Renee Carr. "Negative bias is the tendency to automatically give more attention to a negative event and negative information than positive information or events."

Psychologically, negative events activate our brains more than positive ones. "Negative potency describes the higher amount of psychological arousal that is experienced when a person is exposed to a negative or traumatic event compared with a positive event," Dr. Carr explains.

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When It's Helpful — and When It's Not

In addition to getting us thinking about how we'd handle a potential disaster and the risk factors that increase the chance of being involved, Dr. Mayer says there are a few other ways that viewing destruction can actually be beneficial. "The healthy mechanism of watching disasters is that it is a coping mechanism," he explains. "We can become incubated emotionally by watching disasters and this helps us cope with hardships in our lives. Looking at disasters stimulates our empathy and we are programmed as humans to be empathetic — it is a key psychosocial condition that makes us social human beings."

We tend to think negatively to protect ourselves from the reality. If it turns out better, we're relieved. If it turns out to be worse, we're prepared.

However, as Dr. Stephen Rosenberg points out, empathy can also have a negative impact when following disasters — especially if you know someone who's being affected. "Being human and having empathy can make us feel worried or depressed," he says. "A patient of mine has his family trapped in Puerto Rico. He is following the news closely to monitor events and is waiting to hear from his family after the decimation of the island from the latest hurricane." Staying glued to this news coverage — especially when someone you know is affected, also activates our negativity bias. "We tend to think negatively to protect ourselves from the reality," Dr. Rosenberg explains. "If it turns out better, we're relieved. If it turns out to be worse, we're prepared."

The ability to empathize also plays a part in how we're affected when we see coverage of a disaster that we can relate to. "The more similar the viewer is to the victims of the disaster, the more likely he or she will be to experience anxiety, fear, vicarious trauma, physical complaints and illnesses and decreased daily functioning," Dr. Carr explains. For example, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that during the Ebola outbreaks, participants living in areas with a high demographic of West African-born residents experienced more symptoms of anxiety than those who didn't.

Related

Even if you're not directly impacted by a disaster that's being widely covered on the news, there's evidence that repeated viewing can have a negative effect on mental health and well being. In a post 9/11 study published by The Journal of Anxiety Disorders, the television viewing habits of 166 children and 84 mothers who had no direct exposure to the attacks were studied. Sixty-eight percent of mothers and 48 percent of children reported increased television viewing in the days following the attacks. The study found that this uptick in viewing predicted an increased risk of PTSD symptoms.

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How to Disengage When Disaster Strikes

While we have no control over when and where disasters strike, Dr. Carr says finding a way to help works to divert our attention from the aftermath, and to feel like we're making a difference. "Remember that you do have some control over your safety as well as the welfare of others," she says. "By recognizing your power, you will be less anxious, overwhelmed or depressed. Take control by finding ways you can directly help the victims or the responders helping the victims. You can also take control, by preparing your home, car or workplace for such a disaster."

When tragedies occur that are going to be widely covered, it's even more imperative to be able to step away from your screens. "Practice self-care by placing a limit on how much of the disaster coverage you will watch," says Dr. Carr. "For example, make a commitment to only watch the coverage for 60 minutes. Or, to limit your research or social media scans about the disaster to 30 minutes."

Dr. Mayer says to take this a step further, keep news from flooding your phone as well. "Delete apps on your cell phone that feed you news items of this nature," he says. "Make it known in your friend and work groups that you don’t welcome conversations about disasters." Feel empowered to change the subject if the news of the day does start to bubble up. "Say, 'Can we talk about something else?' Or simply walk away, your friends and co-workers will get the message. Conversely, you can reinforce and be enthusiastic about positive and enriching conversations."

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