Grief, Trauma, Exposure and the Internet

My colleague Dr. Elias Aboujaoude has made a name for himself as an interpreter of how social networking affects our emotions and identity. Stanford’s SCOPE blog recently interviewed him about the way that the Internet is changing how people grieve losses and traumas, such as the 9/11 atrocities.

Among his points is that because almost every significant event is recorded and turned into web images and videos, we are repeatedly exposed to traumatic, sad and fear-inducing events whether we wish to be or not. Elias notes that such exposure can be helpful in some cases but hazardous in others. My experience working with patients who have anxiety disorders leads me to think the critical variable is the amount of control experienced by the person who is being exposed to what upsets them.

The textbook therapeutic use of exposure under controlled conditions is the treatment of phobias. The patient is trained to relax with a series of muscular and mental exercises and then the feared stimulus (say, a spider) is gradually introduced over a series of sessions. At first the spider would be introduced just by talking about spiders and webs and the like, then by having a still photo of a spider, followed perhaps by a video of spiders, and then finally an actual spider. The patient retrains him or herself to maintain the relaxed state despite the exposure until the feared object is no longer scary. The patient knows when the sessions are going to happen and that the exposure will be graduated, which fosters the sense of control they need to master their emotional distress.

However, as we interact with the Internet and other media, feared or traumatic images can come at us unpredictably when we are not relaxed and when we feel no sense of control. This is certainly true of the 9/11 attacks as well as of many natural disasters, such as the Japanese earthquakes. Images come unbidden to our attention in mass-delivered emails, pop-up news stories on web sites, through Facebook and other social networking platforms as well as through the old standbys of television and the covers of the magazines arrayed before us at the supermarket checkout counter. At least some of the people who want to avoid traumatic memories of catastrophes must feel that it’s impossible to get away from vivid reminders of past horrors no matter where they go. And sadly enough, in the Internet age, those traumatized people are probably right.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.