Is "Media Saturation Overload" the next PTSD?
Managing or overseeing responders is not like being the manager at some corporation or business. Responders are a breed of their own and so when it comes to management, it takes special insight and wisdom to deal with internal issues. Responders are known for dark humor, periods of high adrenaline and periods of low adrenaline. Responders are constantly under the spotlight, so they are constantly aware of being “supervised” and criticized by the public and by administrators as well. When a responder has an issue, it is important that it be dealt with as quickly as possible as the wellness of each responder relies on the wellness of the others ultimately resulting in life or death situations where everyone has to be “on their game”.
So what do you do when the check engine light first comes on? You see it, but cannot quite put your finger on why it is on. You slow for a moment and begin to pay special attention to see if you can hear anything different and might even pull over completely for a moment. When nothing stands out as the cause, you continue on your way, promising yourself you will have it looked at. Unfortunately, life happens and a few days pass. You are almost used to that pesky little light and obviously it is nothing major because the vehicle still runs, sounds and handles fine. Well, it did handle fine. Suddenly you feel a shudder, then a slight hesitation and you look down to see that little orange engine shaped light is flashing. You waited too long.
In this present day, this can be what happens to a department all because of a new stressor in the world of response whether it be fire, police or EMS.
That stressor is the news.
In today’s news delivery ecosystem, slightly more than half of U.S. adults report that they get their news through social media. App after app is downloaded and notification settings are chosen. Throughout each day our phones chime or beep with news of protests, lawsuits, investigations, shootings, ambushes, defunding and more. As responders we rationalize the addiction to the news as needing to be aware, but how much is too much and when does it cause the flashing engine light leaving the entire department on the side of the road?
If you have not noticed, there are few stories of the frontline heroes anymore. Sure, by the end of 2020 the stories were out about nurses and EMT’s that were out saving COVID patients, firefighters that were braving pandemic to stay in the station and law enforcement that continued to interact with the infected public in order to maintain law and order, but those stories are long gone. In order to drive the “clickbait” ads, negative news coverage is scientifically created and sent out because negativity gains more attention!
We are victims of our own morbid curiosity. “Firefighter dies in freak fall” will catch our attention pretty quickly. “Cops ambushed while on lunch break”. “New Orleans using civilians due to lack of officers”. See what I mean?
In the last two years our frontline responders, especially law enforcement, have been the focus of negative attention like never before in America’s history and that includes prohibition and the L.A. riot periods! With each frontline responder carrying a cell phone, responders are beginning to suffer from what researchers are calling “media saturation overload” and that is not the only problem. While the overload itself can cause issues (and does in ordinary civilians), it could be causing severe issues in the mindset of responders because they are the focus of the negativity.
It is one thing to constantly be checking the news and it is quite another to be “doomscrolling” story after story that highlights throngs of people that hate you, protestors shouting that you should die, discoveries of plots to ambush or attack you, administrations that want to defund you and more. There is no way to escape the flood of negative media coverage and so responders are facing negativity every day and every hour all while still trying to perform their duties with the same passion they had when they first donned the uniform.
Our problem with news saturation has become serious enough that doctors and researchers are creating new terms for the issue like “headline anxiety” and “headline stress disorder”. There is nothing new about the psychological strain of living through and absorbing dismal news but psychologists are now saying that the increase in negativity toward responders along with the increase of social media commentary has made matters worse.
While we have no treatment centers for “headline anxiety” and there are no treatment programs yet, don’t be shocked to see these soon as things get worse. There is no formally recognized disorder named or diagnostic criteria, but many psychologists are seeing patients suffering from news-related stress already and seeking guidance on how to help them. I have no doubt that we will see research results on law enforcement officers regarding this new “disorder” before too long.
It is for this reason that I write this blog because I propose there is a way that we can mitigate some of the damage this new “disorder” could cause. In other words, maybe we can treat the vehicle the minute that little orange engine starts to glow or maybe, just maybe, we can catch it before the light ever comes on.
Recent research studying news seeking and emotional responses has found that more exposure to the latest headlines—whether through traditional news outlets or highlighted on social media—can undercut mental health. One study, which surveyed 2,251 adults in the spring of 2020, found that the more frequently people sought information about Covid-19 across various mediums—television, newspapers, and social media—the more likely they were to report emotional distress.
Another study, conducted by Matthew Price, PhD, of the University of Vermont in Burlington, followed 61 young adults for 30 days and asked them to assess how they were getting their pandemic-related news each day, along with documenting any symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Price and his colleagues found an association between the amount of exposure to news on social media and more depression and PTSD symptoms.
I do not understand the science behind this new disorder and neither do today’s psychologists (yet), but I do understand critical stress, depression and PTSD and so, based on the studies that are now emerging and interviews I have conducted myself with frontline workers, I believe that we can actively create small programs and changes within our departments to prevent this issue from affecting the valuable men and women under our supervision.
We have to assume that we have responders in our agencies and departments that are feeling the stress of negative news coverage based on studies like the 2020 Stress in America survey that found 83% of Americans reporting stress over issues like political turmoil and civil unrest. That feeling of strain continued to be reflected in the March 2022 survey with 73% of Americans reporting that they felt overwhelmed by the number of issues facing the world at this point in history. 73% of Americans reported feeling overwhelmed by the number of crises facing the world right now.
It is safe to say you have responders out there that are feeling overwhelmed.
Knowing that PTSD whether mild or severe will begin with the symptoms of depression, we can first do an engine check in our own departments before a problem grows. So, let’s raise the hood for a moment…
Working longer hours Look out for responders who suddenly start staying at work after a shift and or coming in early for shift. While this may be normal for some, pay attention if this is not normal for THAT responder. Depression and hyper-vigilance can cause a responder to not feel safe outside of the station or away from their ”strength environment” of other responders.
Increasingly irritable Are you noticing an uptick in irritability? Noticeable increased irritation or nervousness, fidgeting or just over-the-top reactions to normal situations could be a sign that you have a responder starting to feel overwhelmed, hyper-vigilant or depressed.
Visibly tired We are all tired. 14 hours at a wildfire. Ambulance call after ambulance call. A hot night full of domestic violence calls. It all takes a toll, but are you noticing a “different” tired? It is not unusual for people who are stressed to struggle sleeping at night, and we all struggle a little but look again. Is someone showing excessive signs of being tired all the time, coming in to shift looking exhausted? You could be looking at a tell-tale stress signal.
Shying away When stressed, some responders might shy away from others because we are all supposed to be strong enough to handle the job “like men” whether we are men or women! To hide feelings we sometimes will pull back from the herd to avoid drawing attention and thus scrutiny. Sometime a responder is just quiet and that is their personality, but are you thinking of someone right now that has only recently become introverted? There you have it.
Time Are any of your officers or responders preferring to not take time off? Reluctance to take entitled time off could be a sign that an employee would prefer to stay within the confines of what they feel is safe which would be the company of other responders rather than their home, the local store or the streets. Again, hyper-vigilance, depression and stress can all create fears that come on slowly but have quite a hold. On the same subject, has someone started coming in late consistently and out of character. Fear of the job has caused a national shortage of responders and recruiting issues across the country.
Concentration and memory lapses An uncharacteristic lapse in memory and concentration could be an indicator of distraction caused by stress. Is one of your top performers suddenly not acting right? Other symptoms might include increased confusion and indecisiveness.
Overly sensitive If one of your officers or responders is stressed due to the job or the pressure that job has created, it’s likely they’ll be increasingly sensitive and emotional – especially when it comes to work related chat. The dark humor of responders can be mis-read by those outside our circle, but has someone shown signs of that humor striking a cord or upsetting them recently?
Lack of energy Watch for those displaying signs of constant lethargy and illness, this could be due to stress taking its toll on their physical well-being.
This is not all of the signs, but it is a good start toward checking the vehicle before or right after you notice the check engine light. Don’t be afraid to sit your team down and have a talk about how we are all being portrayed in the news and how overwhelming all this negativity can be. Remind them that the call is more important and that they answered a call few have the courage to even consider. Let them know your door is open and you understand.
Steven Stosny, PhD, who specializes in treating people suffering from anger and resentment, first noticed a surge in the symptoms I am writing about, along with anxiety, leading into the 2016 election. Stosny is believed to have coined the term “headline stress disorder” in 2017.
“The red flag is if you get this body tension, or a rise in your pulse rate, just before you check the news,” he said. “Then you have intrusive thoughts about the headlines—you think about them throughout the day.”
What Stosny describes is exactly what I have found in interviewing frontline workers. The truth is, according to Stosny, whenever you focus on things you cannot control you feel powerless” and if there is anything today’s responders need, it is to feel empowered.
It is all really quite crazy the world we live in and how we have created systems that can be our own downfall. In this media environment, Stosny described the smartphone as a sort of drug delivery system, incessantly delivering news and other information. Research has demonstrated that a phone alert spurs a small release of dopamine.
So, do we just delete our news apps and ignore the negativity altogether? Stosny says no. The road to being well is paved with moderation of exposure. Stosny said that just deleting all your news apps will only leave the responder to their own imagination of what is happening, what is being said and what the threats are.
The payoff of moderating news exposure was reflected in the findings of a study conducted early in the pandemic during Spain’s shutdown. Researchers found that two-thirds of the 5,545 Spanish adults surveyed reported anxiety or depressive symptoms. But those who limited their exposure to Covid-19 news and tried to eat healthy, along with pursuing hobbies and more time outdoors, were likely to experience less stress.
The effects of reading or watching a lot of negative news coverage can harm both mind and body. I am afraid that the public outcries, unsubstantiated accusations, targeted attacks, civil unrest and the rest of it is going to continue until something radical happens in our country to bring us back to the America that respected, revered and honored their responders. Until then, watch each other, if you must read it, then delete it. Rather than suffer from hyper-vigilance with your head on a 360 swivel, talk to each other and stand back to back watching out for each other.
Communicate. If you are struggling, if every day the negativity is crushing your soul or breaking your heart, reach out. Gather your crew together and talk about how negative news is affecting your people. Listen to them speak and remind them that they are still America’s heroes, whether the news coverage says they or not.